Why Republicans Can’t Stop Trying to Repeal ObamaCare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nationalism Reconsidered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week’s leading NFL highlights weren’t about game-winning passes or violent sacks, but about what the players did during the national anthem, and how Trump incited or responded to them. Bit by bit, the national argument for and against Trump is taking over the entire culture. There are fewer and fewer places where you can escape from it.

Even if you did manage to ignore the various fronts in the war between Trump and black athletes, there was a lot to pay attention to this week. The last-last-ditch, we-really-mean-it-this-time attempt to repeal ObamaCare looked briefly like it might pull together 50 senators, but now appears to be as doomed as the previous attempts. Trump made a disturbing speech to the UN, and increased both the rhetorical and economic pressure on North Korea, which showed no signs of cracking. A few more examples of Trump-administration corruption popped up, and the Russia investigation had its usual drip-drip-drip of revelations.

But I decided to take a step back to get a wider view. After the election I suggested that we need to start discussing issues we used to think were settled, and explaining things that we thought everybody already understood by now. My first shot at that was “Should I Have White Pride?“. This week’s featured post comes back to this theme. I use Trump’s UN speech and Steve Bannon’s 60 Minutes interview as a jumping-off point for discussing nationalism: why so many people are attracted to it again, and why I’m not one of them. That should be out maybe 10ish.

The weekly summary covers the things I listed above, plus a few others, before closing with an amusing commercial for a truly natural health remedy. I’m aiming to get that out by noon.


That was some weird shit.

– George W. Bush’s reaction to Trump’s inaugural address,
as quoted by Hillary Clinton

This week’s featured post is “Single Payer Joins the Debate“.

This week everybody was talking about North Korea

Last week, a commenter took me to task for ignoring the North Korea situation. And then this week even more stuff happened: Last Monday, the UN Security Council approved new sanctions against North Korea. Friday, North Korea flew another missile over Japan. U.S. rhetoric remained at a high level, with National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster insisting that “There is a military option.” And yesterday, UN Ambassador Nicki Haley warned: “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or defend its allies in any way, North Korea will be destroyed.”

That all sounds very urgent, but I continue to be unmoved by all the apparent drama. I think all the major players already knows how this comes out: Kim Jong-Un will keep his bombs and missiles, and will be restrained only by mutually assured destruction, as all of our other nuclear-armed enemies and rivals have been. That sounds like a defeat for the U.S., so of course nobody wants to admit it. But try to come up with some other outcome.

  • Kim isn’t going to give up his nukes, because without them he could be overthrown by a U.S. invasion, as Saddam Hussein was. He sees this as a survival issue, so nobody — not China or anybody else — is going to change his mind.
  • This is a regime that watched half a million (or more) of its citizens die in the famines of 1994-1998, so no economic sanctions the rest of the world could stand to impose are going to make it do something it doesn’t want to do. (And Russia is going to undercut those sanctions anyway.)
  • We could undoubtedly take down the Korean regime in a preemptive strike, but not before it leveled Seoul with conventional artillery, or nuked both Seoul and Tokyo. If we start a war that results in tens of millions of our allies’ citizens dying, we’ll be a pariah nation. No one will ever ally with us again.
  • The only military strike that could avoid that outcome would be an all-out nuclear annihilation that happened too fast for any response. In other words, we’d mass-murder 25 million people, with God knows what environmental consequences for South Korea, Japan, and China. Again, we’re a pariah nation and all our leaders are war criminals.

You could imagine some magnificently planned limited strike that took out only (and all of) North Korea’s nuclear facilities, or only (and all of) its missiles, leaving Kim with no reprisal options other than raining conventional hell down on Seoul. And you could imagine that he’d decide not to do that, for fear of what our next response would be. But seriously, is anybody going to roll those dice?

So yeah, there’s a military option: If Kim starts using his nukes without provocation — which I don’t think he’ll do; he’s a survivalist, not a madman — we’ll have to overthrow him militarily and accept the consequences. But in any other circumstance, we’ll just have to learn to live with another nuclear-armed enemy.

In short, I see all the rhetoric and sanctions and threats as a bunch of sound and fury that signifies nothing. North Korea will eventually have nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S., just as Russia and China already do. I’m not happy about that, but jumping around and yelling about it isn’t going to make any difference.

and single-payer health care

I covered Senator Sanders’ latest Medicare-for-All bill in the featured post.

and the Equifax breach

A company you may have never heard of announced it let hackers steal information about 143 million people.

What makes this loss of personal data different from a lot of the others we’ve seen is that none of us ever decided to trust Equifax. It’s not like we took a job there or shopped with them or typed our information into their web site. Most people probably didn’t even know what Equifax was until they heard that it had let their personal information get stolen.

The big three credit-reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and Transunion) are to personal credit what the big three bond-rating companies (Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch) are to corporate credit: private companies that have become gatekeepers. You can’t live anything like a normal life in America without generating a file in all three.

Adding insult to injury, three high Equifax executives sold shares of company stock before the breach was announced, saving themselves hundreds of thousands in losses. I’m not a lawyer, but that looks kind of suspicious. (If I were them, I’d claim that somebody hacked my brokerage account and made the trades. Who could have suspected that “password” wasn’t a good password?)

While reading security wonks, I occasionally run into the Pudd’nhead Wilson Principle:

Put your eggs in the one basket, and — WATCH THAT BASKET.

The Verge argues:

Thursday’s breach should wake us up to how fundamentally broken this system is, and how urgently we need to replace it. Breaches aren’t simply security failures; they’re the inevitable result of a broken identity system. It’s time to rip it up and start again.

Consumer Reports has a article about how to protect yourself against identity theft by criminals using the stolen data. (Lucky me: I got a free credit-tracking service back when the federal government let criminals steal my information.) Sadly, most of the things you can do are examples of the you-don’t-have-to-swim-faster-than-the-shark principle: You don’t need to make yourself bulletproof, you just need to present criminals with a stiffer challenge than most other people do.

and Hillary Clinton

She came back in to the public eye this week with a new book and a string of high-profile interviews. And no, she’s not running for anything; that part of her life is over.

I haven’t read her book yet. I probably should; I read her other books as research when her campaign was starting, and I was surprised to find that I liked her authorial voice. And people I respect (like James Fallows and Rachel Maddow) say it’s not like the usual politician’s memoir. But I’m not sure I have it in me to relive 2016 yet.

Still, Fallows relates one line that makes me interested: Hillary’s account of George W. Bush’s response to Trump’s inaugural speech: “That was some weird shit.” I can imagine that Hillary has heard a lot of similarly interesting comments that have never made it into the public record.

One really tiresome way to rehash the 2016 election is to have this argument: “No, your explanation of Trump’s win is wrong; my explanation is the correct one.” In an election as close as 2016, all kinds of things were decisive factors; if they’d been different, Clinton would be president.

So yes, Clinton’s loss was due to bad strategy, Comey, Russia, misogyny, overconfidence, Jill Stein, fake news, racist backlash against Obama, lack of personal warmth, decades of slanders, false equivalence in the media, and a long list of other things. Nobody who makes any of those arguments is wrong. When a straw breaks the camel’s back, every single straw is decisive.

and you also might be interested in …

Congress has one last chance to repeal ObamaCare before its reconciliation authority ends on September 30.

Tuesday, the Supreme Court “blocked two lower court rulings that invalidated parts of Texas’ [legislature and congressional district] maps where lawmakers were found to have discriminated against voters of color.” So the racially gerrymandered maps will help Republicans hang onto their House majority in 2018.

The ruling was 5-4, so this decision is a partisan dividend that Republicans get for blocking President Obama from appointing Merrick Garland (or anybody) to the seat now held by Neil Gorsuch. Charles Pierce:

The new Gorsuch majority performed the way that the Gorsuch majority was designed to behave as soon as it was determined by Mitch McConnell that the Garland majority was something up with which he would not put.

Another institution that is behaving as it was designed to behave is Trump’s Presidential Commission on Election Integrity: Vice Chairman Kris Kobach is using it as a platform to spread lies about voter fraud. He wrote a column at Breitbart claiming that New Hampshire’s 2016 election was contaminated by as many as 5313 fraudulent votes. Since both Hillary Clinton and Maggie Hassan won by less than that, Kobach concludes:

Facts have come to light that indicate that a pivotal, close election was likely changed through voter fraud on November 8, 2016: New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate Seat, and perhaps also New Hampshire’s four Electoral College votes in the presidential election.

What he actually found is that 5313 people took advantage of same-day registration while using an out-of-state ID (like a driver’s license), and had not gotten a New Hampshire driver’s license or registered a car in the state in the next ten months.

PolitiFact explains why this is not proof of anything. What Kobach seems to have found are out-of-state college students who spend enough time in New Hampshire to vote here legally. Forty years ago, that would have been me: I voted at my college address in Michigan, while keeping my Illinois driver’s license. Eventually my parents gave me their old car, but it stayed registered in their names.

Like so many voter-fraud claims, this could be nailed down if anybody decided to invest the effort, but they never do. (One case were investigators took the fraud claims seriously — and watched them evaporate — was the basis for my post “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“.)  Kobach has a list of names. He knows who these 5313 people are. If they’ve committed fraud, why not press charges? In fact he will never track them down and never press charges, because the point was to create a headline out of nothing. Being laughed out of court — as he would be — doesn’t serve his purposes. The only fraud here is Kobach himself.

Supposedly, Trump is negotiating a DACA deal with Pelosi and Schumer. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Just what we need: another hurricane. Maria is up to Category 3 and apparently headed for Puerto Rico.

Trump is still trying to make Susan Rice the villain of his version of the Russia story, the one where Obama officials manufactured something out of nothing to start a witch hunt against him. But it’s still not working.

The latest in Trump’s Herculean attempt to drain flood the swamp: The Office of Government Ethics has approved lobbyists making anonymous donations to legal defense funds for White House staffers. Because of course no lobbyists would be crass enough to wink and nod to White House staff in ways that pierced their anonymity. And staffers wouldn’t be grateful or anything, or see the contributions as favors that should be answered with more favors.

I was surprised how even-handed this WaPo article on Antifa was.

Gretchen Kelly explains something she suspects men don’t know. (I think she’s right.) Namely, just how pervasive various forms of harassment are.

and let’s close with something far out

The Cassini spacecraft died a hero’s death Friday. Years past the originally scheduled end of its mission to explore Saturn, Cassini used its last bit of fuel to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning itself up to insure that no Earth microbes contaminated Saturn’s moons, which (thanks to Cassini’s discoveries) we now think might have life.

All kinds of sites posted their favorite Cassini photos; the most complete collection is (of course) NASA’s. Here is what Saturn looks like when the Sun is behind it. You can see the translucence of the rings, and even an outermost ring we usually don’t notice.

Single Payer Joins the Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

It’s been just another week of the Trump administration, with our UN ambassador listing some conditions under which “North Korea will be destroyed.” I’ll lead off this week’s summary by explaining why I don’t think all this sound and fury signifies much: Beyond returning some threats of his own, Kim Jong Un will ignore it, and there’s really not that much the U.S. can do about it.

The big domestic political news was that Bernie Sanders submitted a Medicare for All bill. He’s done this before, but something’s different this time: Every Democratic senator who’s thinking about running for president in 2020 has signed on. I’ll discuss what this means in the featured post “Single Payer Joins the Debate”.  That still needs some work, but I should have it posted before 10 EDT.

The weekly summary will also cover the Equifax breach, negotiations over DACA, the return of Hillary Clinton, and a few other things, before closing with a celebration of the space probe Cassini, which died a hero’s death in Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday. Figure that to be out by noon.

Facing the Storm

Every life has to end one way or another

– Senator John McCain
discussing his brain cancer yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union

There’s no featured post this week. The week’s news was dominated by hurricane-watching, which is the kind of current event a one-person blog isn’t equipped to cover well.

This week everybody was talking about Irma

All week the story was Irma: her strength, her path of destruction across the Caribbean, and where current projections said she would hit the United States.

Personally, I spent a lot of the week listening to hurricane coverage and wondering why Irma had seized so much more of my attention than Harvey had two weeks before. Both were huge and deadly. Both hit the United States and did (and in Irma’s case is still doing) major damage. Yet for some reason Harvey coverage seemed like all the other storm coverage I’ve watched over the years — Andrew, Katrina, Wilma, Sandy — while I got caught up in the drama of Irma: Would it hit Florida’s east or west coasts? What would happen to the Keys? Would it make landfall at Naples, Fort Myers, Tampa?

Part of the reason was undoubtedly personal: I know Florida much better than I know Texas. I have close friends outside of Sarasota. I used to visit my snowbirding parents each year in Fort Lauderdale. My wife and I honeymooned in Key West. I’ve walked the riverwalk in Tampa (where Anderson Cooper had stationed himself Sunday). Texas’ gulf coast, on the other hand, is just a place on a map to me. Whether Harvey made landfall at Corpus Christi or Rockport or further up the line at Galveston … no doubt it mattered tremendously to the people who live there, but I don’t have any personal reason to care about one of those towns more than the others.

I wonder also if the media coverage was different: Irma seemed to blot out the country’s usual politics in a way that Harvey didn’t. (That’s one reason why it seemed pointless to write a featured post this week.) I don’t have any objective measurement of that, and I’d be interested to hear in the comments whether it seemed that way to you.

As for why the networks might have covered Irma differently (if it indeed they did), I think my reaction might be more widespread than I initially suspected: Most of the country has some reason to feel a personal connection to Florida. It is the most visited state in the union. Nearly half the non-Floridians in the U.S. report having gone to Florida for either work or pleasure. It’s also the country’s top retirement destination, which means that almost everybody cares about somebody in Florida: parent, grandparent, mentor, or friend. Lots and lots of Americans have wondered if they might move there themselves someday.

After tracking Irma’s path for a while, Jose diverged to the north, missing islands Irma had already devastated. It now looks likely to stall over the Atlantic.

Irma’s winds hitting 185 sparked discussion about whether the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale needs a Category 6. After all, Category 4 starts at 130 mph winds and Category 5 at 157. Surely by 185 you need a new category.

Popular Mechanics explains why not: The scale was created not as an abstract measure, but to help communities calibrate their preparations.

Category 5 is widespread, catastrophic damage. There’s not really anything worse than that.

In other words, if Cat 5 already means “Run for your lives!” there’s no need for any higher category.

First responders who breathed in the fumes from the post-Harvey chemical-plant explosion in Crosby, Texas are suing the company. They claim the owner minimized the dangers and failed to give them adequate warnings of what to expect after the explosion.

The last time a hurricane season pointed so clearly to global warming was 2005, when Katrina and Wilma hit, and the Atlantic storm list ran out of letters in the alphabet. Until this year, though, no subsequent Category 3 or higher hurricanes had made landfall in the United States. (Sandy had declined to Category 2 by the time it ravaged the Northeast in 2012.) So there had been talk of a  “hurricane drought”.

Chris Mooney discusses what happened. First, there was simple luck. The Atlantic continued producing an above-average number of hurricanes, but their paths stayed out to sea. There does appear to be some decades-long cycle in hurricane activity, but it’s more like bull-and-bear cycles in the stock market than anything you’d want to count on: The oscillations are of no standard length, and since we don’t understand the mechanism, we don’t really know that the apparent pattern is more than a statistical anomaly.

Mooney’s article re-emphasizes a point I’ve made before about climate change: Weather is such a noisy system that it’s not really the place to start when you look for evidence (or try to convince someone else). As an analogy, think about the annual winter-to-summer warming: If all you had to go on was your own thermometer, you might suffer through a Memorial Day cold snap, look back to that one freakishly warm day in early April, and convince yourself that “spring warming” is a myth.

The other end of the phenomenon is easier to understand and see evidence of: The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. It goes up every year. The rise is caused by burning fossil fuels. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to radiate less of the Sun’s energy back into space.

Given all that, you’d expect the planetwide increase in retained energy to show up in all sorts of ways: heat waves, hurricanes, rising oceans, shrinking glaciers, and so on. And in the long term it does, just as summer always eventually arrives. But all of those effects arise in complex systems with many inputs other than how much solar energy the planet is retaining. CO2 has its foot on the accelerator, but sometimes the car is going uphill, and the increase won’t show up until it starts downhill again.

While we’re on climate change, have you ever wondered about that 3% of climate-science papers that don’t support the consensus theory? Researchers looked at them, and found nothing they could replicate.

Is there anything more annoying than people who see natural disasters as evidence of God’s fury and are sure they know why God is angry? It’s one thing to use God-language metaphorically to personalize actual cause-and-effect, like saying God is sending hurricanes in response to the thoughtless way we’re pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. But attributing Harvey and Irma to abortion or same-sex marriage is treating God like a puppet: He says whatever you want Him to say.

Texas’ recovery from Harvey is producing a church-and-state issue: Should churches get FEMA help to rebuild? Previously, churches weren’t eligible for disaster-relief funds, but that was before the Supreme Court’s recent Trinity Lutheran decision, which extended a state program subsidizing playground resurfacing to cover a school operated by a church. Chief Justice Roberts wrote:

But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.

A new lawsuit by Houston churches wants to extend that decision to disaster relief for houses of worship themselves. I haven’t read the Trinity Lutheran decision yet, so I’m not ready to weigh in. But whatever the outcome, I want it to apply equally to all religions. Would Texas Christians be willing to see their tax dollars rebuilding mosques and synagogues?

and Trump’s deal with the Democrats

In spite of the hurricanes, the week’s most unexpected event came Wednesday when Trump sided with the Democrats on a deal to keep the government running until December 8. The bill (signed Friday) appropriated $15.3 billion for hurricane relief, continued government spending at current levels elsewhere, and raised the debt ceiling. It did all that without any of the usual hostage-taking: no spending cuts to balance the hurricane relief, no attacks on ObamaCare or Medicaid, not even money for Trump’s border wall. There was also none of the brinksmanship we’ve gotten used to: The House and Senate didn’t play chicken with each other, and the vote wasn’t delayed until minutes before the government would have to shut down.

Republicans felt undercut and several were “seething” (according to The L.A. Times). All 90 of the House votes against the bill came from Republicans. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Budget Director Mulvaney reportedly were “met with groans, boos and hisses” Friday morning when they tried to get Republican congresspeople to support the deal.

That agreement was part of a larger Trump charm offensive towards Democrats. When Trump went to North Dakota Wednesday to promote his (so far vacuous, as I explained last week) tax reform proposal, he took Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp with him on Air Force One, and appeared with her on stage.

For a Democrat fighting to keep her seat next year in a state Trump won by 36 points, the senator’s day could not have gone much better. Trump’s tax push has yet to be written as legislation, and a vote still remains a hypothetical. Heitkamp’s appearance with the president, then, cost her little in exchange for what amounted to an endorsement of her willingness to work across the aisle.

Since so far Trump’s tax reform “proposal” is only a vague list of principles, Heitkamp could easily support it in theory and still vote against the bill that ultimately comes to the floor.

He also took Nancy Pelosi’s suggestion to reassure DACA immigrants that they won’t be deported in the next six months. He agreed with Chuck Schumer on the goal of repealing the debt ceiling permanently.

(BTW: That’s a good idea. The debt limit has essentially become a self-destruct button that Congress must periodically decide whether to push. A debt ceiling made sense before 1974, when Congress considered each tax and appropriation separately and members could duck responsibility for the deficits those bills added up to. But now the irresponsibility runs in the other direction: A member can vote for a budget that includes a deficit, and then preen for his constituents by voting against allowing the government to borrow the money.)

The punditry has a number of theories about why Trump is doing this. If you’re in a generous mood, you might imagine that he’s doing it for the good of the country. After all, we avoid a government shutdown or a debt crisis for another three months, and hurricane victims start getting help, all without creating another artificial crisis.

You might also imagine that he’s decided to begin taking seriously the populism he campaigned on. Up until now, Trump’s executive orders have nodded in the direction of campaign promises about immigration and trade, but he has let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell control his legislative agenda. So ObamaCare repeal-and-replace would have done its greatest damage in precisely the poor rural communities where Trump is so popular, and tax reform looked likely to become yet another giveaway to the super-rich, with working-class Americans offered little more than a mess of pottage in exchange for Social Security and Medicare birthrights that would inevitably be cut once budget deficits balloon.

So charming Democrats could, in theory, be the overture of an authentically populist tax reform, one that eliminates the loopholes where the rich hide their income and uses the money to either cut middle-class taxes or lower the deficit.

Another theory is that Trump didn’t like hearing that Congress would be too busy in September to accomplish much on tax reform or infrastructure, so he made a quick deal that would “clear the decks“. The Hill reports:

Lawmakers had expected to fight over fiscal issues right up until the end of September, but now the schedule for the month is surprisingly clear.

Finally, there’s Josh Marshall’s theory, which I have to say sounds the most plausible to me:

Trump needs to dominate people. Clearly Trump felt that McConnell and Ryan are not serving him well enough or loyally enough or both. So he lashed out or tried to damage them. Schumer and Pelosi were simply the most convenient cudgels available. … It’s been clear for weeks that [Trump] feels routinely betrayed by these two men. They don’t produce for him. They embarrass. They fail to defend him. The need to dominate runs deeper than any policy agenda or ideological ambition.

I interpret the recent overtures with a high-school-dance metaphor: Trump’s date hasn’t been giving him enough adulation, so he’s punishing her by flirting with her rival. Pelosi and Schumer should enjoy the dance, but not get fooled into thinking that some great romance is starting. Trump will be back with Ryan and McConnell as soon as he thinks they’ve learned their lesson.

and DACA

It’s still not clear what’s going to happen to the Dreamers. Their protection against deportation will start phasing out in six months, and Congress might or might not find a way to help them. (That’s a test of Congress’ functionality: Almost nobody really wants to deport them, but dysfunctional systems often do things that nobody wants.) And Trump is now leaning both ways: He says he will “revisit” his DACA decision in six months if Congress doesn’t do anything.

The stereotypic Dreamer is a teen-ager or 20-something brought to this country from Mexico around age 5. Like a lot of stereotypes, there is some statistical truth in it, but a lot of Dreamers don’t fit.

The NYT does the demographics. About 3/4ths of the Dreamers are from Mexico, and other Latino countries provide most of the rest. But not all: 7250 are from South Korea, 4655 from the Philippines, 3435 from Jamaica, and 3182 from India.

Part of what you see there is that not all undocumented immigrants get into the country by sneaking across a border. A large number of them (even ones from Mexico) come here legally as tourists and then stay after their visas expire. The Great Wall of Mexico won’t do anything to stop them.

15 state attorney generals are suing to block Trump from ending DACA. It’s a difficult argument, and I find it hard to believe they’ll succeed. In some sense their case is modeled on the one against Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, in which he blocked visitors from six Muslim-majority countries. There, the argument wasn’t that Trump lacked the power to issue that order, but that it was unconstitutional for him to issue it capriciously, as a way of discriminating against Muslims.

Ditto here: Obama started DACA via executive order, so Trump certainly has the power to un-order it. To win the case, then, the AGs would have to convince a federal court that Trump’s order could only be motivated by anti-Latino animus. It seems like a tough case to make.

but USA Today’s investigation of corruption deserves more attention

Wednesday, USA Today published “Trump gets millions from golf members. CEOs and lobbyists get access to president“. Abstractly, we all knew the problem Trump’s private clubs create:

for the first time in U.S. history, wealthy people with interests before the government have a chance for close and confidential access to the president as a result of payments that enrich him personally.

The initiation fee is $200K at Mar-a-Lago and $300K at Bedminster, with thousands more expected in membership fees each year. A lobbyist or CEO seeking government favors knows that he might meet the President in either place, and the President will know that he has received a large payment — not a campaign contribution, but a payment that benefits him personally.

[This is an important point: If you believe a politician’s policies are good for the country, civic virtue might motivate you to contribute to his or her re-election. But giving a government official money to spend on himself is always improper.]

Even if that’s theoretically possible, does it actually happen? It’s been hard to prove. The membership rolls at Trump’s clubs are secret, so you can’t check them for suspicious names. You also can’t check whether Trump suddenly started making more money off his clubs after he became president, because his tax returns are secret. The Obama administration would at least tell you who the President was playing golf with, but the Trump administration won’t even do that.

So journalists had to get creative.

USA TODAY set out to identify as many members of Trump’s private clubs as possible. We found more than 4,500 names by scouring social media posts, news stories and a public website golfers use to track their handicaps.

Our reporters then reviewed many hundreds of members’ names and used information available online and public documents such as lobbying registrations, corporate records, property deeds and medical licenses to determine the members’ jobs and if they make their living trying to influence the federal government or win contracts with it.

And they found some.

Members of the clubs Trump has visited most often as president — in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials. Two-thirds played on one of the 58 days the president was there, according to scores they posted online.

As the article notes, there is nothing illegal about this, as long as the executives and lobbyists pay the same fees other people do, and no government favor is an identifiable quid pro quo. But it’s unsavory at a level that has not been seen in American politics for the last century or so.

Trump isn’t draining the swamp, he’s flooding it.

Speaking of corruption, we’re still not in a league with Brazil. This is how you know that you’ve got a problem:

and you also might be interested in …

About that “American carnage” we supposedly need an anti-immigrant, law-and-order president to protect us from: no sign of it in the numbers.

Tom Heberlein is an American living in Sweden who likes Swedish taxes. Sure they’re higher than American taxes, but you also get more: healthcare, public transportation, and college, just to name a few benefits. Interestingly, Heberlein turns the conservative “free to choose” argument upside-down:

No matter how rich Bill Gates is, he cannot buy a hiking trail system in Seattle like those we take for granted in Stockholm. I get to use it for free and have more choices for hiking than I can ever enjoy in Wisconsin.

… Betty and I used to live the village of Lodi, about 25 miles from Madison. This being America, I was free to travel to Madison however and whenever I wanted, as long as it was by private automobile. There was (and is) no bus service to Madison. Even though railroad tracks run right through the village, there is no commuter rail service either.

If this were a suburb of Stockholm or any other European city of 250,000, there would be train service and bus service several times an hour. These are the choices Europeans have that we don’t, because they devote more of their income to collective goods.

Ta-Nehisi Coates proclaims Trump “America’s first white president“, meaning (I think) that he’s the first president whose appeal is based on white identity politics.

Explanations of Trump’s victory that rely on economic resentment rather than racial resentment just don’t cut it.

Trump’s white support was not determined by income. According to Edison Research, Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker. So when white pundits cast the elevation of Trump as the handiwork of an inscrutable white working class, they are being too modest, declining to claim credit for their own economic class. Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent.

… Sixty-one percent of whites in this “working class” supported Trump. Only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks did. Indeed, the plurality of all voters making less than $100,000 and the majority making less than $50,000 voted for the Democratic candidate. So when Packer laments the fact that “Democrats can no longer really claim to be the party of working people—not white ones, anyway,” he commits a kind of category error. The real problem is that Democrats aren’t the party of white people—working or otherwise. White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.

As interesting and consequential as the Russian hack of Democrats’ email systems is the Russian social-media bot network. It’s still working to influence American political opinion. Most recently, it’s been pushing a pro-alt-Right anti-Antifa angle.

A follow-up to the article I mentioned last week about the morality of being rich: Rachel Sherman wrote in the NYT about her interviews with some wealthy people in New York: They do feel conflicted about their wealth, and many of them try not to appear to be as rich as they are.

Yet we believe that wealthy people seek visibility because those we see are, by definition, visible. In contrast, the people I spoke with expressed a deep ambivalence about identifying as affluent.

One of the interviewees takes the price tags off of everything, because she is embarrassed to have the housekeeper know she spends $6 for a loaf of bread.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to expand publicly funded charter schools nationwide. She was responsible for the law that expanded them in Michigan, which isn’t working out so well.

Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states. It’s a devastating fall. Indeed, new national assessment data suggest Michigan is witnessing systemic decline across the K-12 spectrum. White, black, brown, higher-income, low-income — it doesn’t matter who they are or where they live.

and let’s close with something out of the ordinary

Looking ahead to Irma hitting Florida, NPR did an article on disaster planning at zoos. It’s usually not possible to load a bunch of exotic animals into a truck and head up the turnpike to safety, so zoos have to get creative about sheltering in place. In this photo, a flock of flamingos (even the females) wait out 1998’s Hurricane Georges in a men’s bathroom.

A related concern is Gatorland in Orlando, where 2,000 alligators (and a few pythons and other dangerous reptiles) live. The theme park assured the public that none of its creatures will escape; a five-person crew stays on duty through a storm. Now there’s an idea for your horror-movie script: You were supposed to be on your way back to college by now, but instead you’re in the crew weathering a disaster at an alligator park. “Don’t worry!” the boss says as he catches the last jeep out.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m in Halifax, having spent the week driving around Nova Scotia, hiking, and watching hurricane coverage. None of that activity has provoked a thought deep enough to write a featured article about. I’m still slogging through background reading about what actually works to fight fascism. (I want to deepen the observations I made about Antifa a few weeks ago.) And hurricanes are sucking up so much of the country’s attention that I’m not sure who would read an article about anything else right now. So this week I’ll just post an extra-long weekly summary.

That said, a number of the articles the summary will link to have the kind of depth my thoughts have been lacking: getting past Trump’s secrecy to find the favor-seekers paying big bucks to join his clubs, an American’s envy of high Swedish taxes, examining how badly charter schools work in Betsy DeVos’ Michigan, seeing Trump as “the first white president”, and a few others.

I can’t compete with CNN to give you the latest on Irma or Jose, but I’ll point to a few side issues the hurricanes are raising: Should there be a Category 6? Should FEMA help rebuild churches? Did the media cover Irma differently than Harvey? How do zoos plan for hurricanes, and what are all those flamingos doing in the men’s bathroom?

Finally, there’s Trump’s deal with Schumer and Pelosi to keep the government running for the next three months, and all the make-nice he’s been aiming at Democrats this last week. What’s that about? Will it last? Is there a change here worth taking seriously? (I’m skeptical.)

Taking advantage of waking up early in the Maritime time zone, I should have the summary out by 10 EDT, if not earlier.

Weird Times

Our climate has been in a rough temperature equilibrium for about 10,000 years, while we developed agriculture and advanced civilization and Netflix. Now our climate is about to rocket out of that equilibrium, in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a decent idea, and we know it’s going to be weird.

– David Roberts “Climate change did not ’cause’ Harvey, but it’s a huge part of the story

This week’s featured posts are “Houston, New Orleans, and the Long Descent” and “Trump has no agenda“.

This week everybody was still talking about Harvey

By now, we’ve all seen the pictures of the flooding, and heard about the explosions at the chemical plant. The long-term environmental impact is still unknown.

It’s interesting to consider how differently liberals and conservatives might be watching the response to Harvey. Conservatives can focus on the ordinary people who are using their boats to rescue their neighbors, Dunkirk style. “That’s what we need more of,” they think, “good-hearted individuals volunteering to be heroes without a lot of bureaucracy getting in the way.”

Liberals, meanwhile, focus the larger picture: Will individual volunteers find everybody that needs rescuing? Once you rescue somebody with your boat, where do you take them? Will they have a place to sleep? Will somebody feed them? If they’re injured, will somebody treat them? try to reunite them with whoever might be looking for them? Once in a while all those pieces may fall together without any government organization, but most of the time not.

VoxDavid Roberts makes a good point about whether climate changed “caused” Harvey: It’s a malformed question. Climate change is a background condition that affects literally everything, but it doesn’t replace more immediate causes.

He makes a good analogy: What if gravity suddenly got 1% stronger? More people would be injured in falls, but it would be silly to blame any particular injury on “gravity change”. Each fall would still have some more immediate cause like a patch of ice or a dizzy spell.

With more heat energy in the system, everything’s going to get crazier — more heat waves, more giant rainstorms, more droughts, more floods. That means climate change is part of every story now. The climate we live in shapes agriculture, it shapes cities and economies and trade, it shapes culture and learning, it shapes human conflict. It is a background condition of all these stories, and its changes are reflected in them.

So we’ve got to get past this “did climate change cause it?” argument. A story like Harvey is primarily a set of local narratives, about the lives immediately affected. But it is also part of a larger narrative, one developing over decades and centuries, with potentially existential stakes. We’ve got to find a way to weave those narratives together while respecting and doing justice to both. [my emphasis]

A broader question to ponder: Sometimes we do this kind of narrative-blending well and sometimes we don’t. It goes without saying, for example, that individual war stories always take place in a broader context. So there’s no need to rehash the Cold War and the Domino Theory every time Grandpa tells his I-stepped-on-a-mine-but-it-was-a-dud story from Vietnam.

Racism and sexism, on the other hand, are like climate change: They’re background conditions for literally everything that happens in America. At the same time, though, they’re seldom the reason something happens. How do we talk about that?

Paul Krugman’s “Why Can’t We Get Cities Right?” is a rare both-sides-do-it column that I agree with. He argues that Houston’s vulnerability to Harvey shows the downside of the unregulated development allowed in red-state cities, while the ridiculous cost of housing in San Francisco shows what goes wrong in blue-state cities.

Why can’t we get urban policy right? It’s not hard to see what we should be doing. We should have regulation that prevents clear hazards, like exploding chemical plants in the middle of residential neighborhoods, preserves a fair amount of open land, but allows housing construction.

In particular, we should encourage construction that takes advantage of the most effective mass transit technology yet devised: the elevator.

and North Korea

Talking tough to Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem to be working. Yesterday, North Korea tested what it says was an H-bomb, and the seismic data seems to back up that claim. Tuesday, it flew a missile over Japan.

and the Russia investigation

Three major recent developments: First, while he was running for president, Trump signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower Moscow, and his people contacted Putin’s people to try to get the Russian government behind the idea. As far as I know, there is nothing illegal in any of that. But it does show that Trump’s blanket denials of having any business relationship with Russia were false.

In July 2016, Trump denied business connections with Russia and said on Twitter: “for the record, I have ZERO investments in Russia.” He told a news conference the next day: “I have nothing to do with Russia.”

It might also give a financial motive for the Putin-friendly things he said during the campaign.

Second, we learned about the existence of a letter Trump wrote to James Comey but never sent, in which he fired Comey and explained why. The NYT broke the story, and claims the Mueller investigation has a copy of the letter, but no Times reporter has seen it. The article does not quote the letter directly, but only recounts the assessments of people who have read it. The letter is said to be a “screed” that “offered an unvarnished view of Mr. Trump’s thinking in the days before the president fired the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey.” White House Counsel Don McGahn talked him out of sending it.

If the letter says that Comey was fired because he wouldn’t shut down the Russia investigation, then it’s evidence of obstruction of justice — but we don’t really know that. What it clearly does prove is that the story Trump’s people (including VP Pence) told the public about Comey’s firing was false.

Third, Mueller is now working with the New York state attorney general on a money-laundering investigation of Paul Manafort. By bringing in the state, Mueller nullifies Trump’s pardon power, which only extends to federal crimes.

It’s often hard to know what to make of the news we hear about Russia and Trump. To the credit of the Mueller investigation, very little of the evidence it has gathered has leaked. (This is a welcome change from the constant leaks about the Clinton email investigation, many of which turned out to be misleading.) So the information available to the public doesn’t prove anything either way.

What I keep coming back to, though, is that whenever Trump and his associates have had to deal with some issue related to Russia, they have lied. They don’t act like people with nothing to hide.

Friday we saw another one of those North-Korea-like moments in the White House.

So, remember that one time when President Donald Trump held a Cabinet meeting and everyone at the table outdid themselves when it came to heaping praise on POTUS? Well, we got a similar situation today during a signing ceremony in the Oval Office in which Trump had a bunch of religious leaders surround him and profusely thank the president for his response to Hurricane Harvey.

With the president proclaiming that this coming Sunday will be a day of prayer for Harvey victims, he began going around the room and calling on different faith leaders to give remarks. And, wouldn’t you know, they all tripped over each other to express their gratitude for all the president had done so far.

The link includes a video, which is stomach-turning. I can’t think of any previous president, of either party, who would have allowed this kind of public fawning, much less encouraged it.

and DACA

Tomorrow, Trump is expected to announce what he will do with Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows immigrants who came to America outside the legal immigration system, but as children, to remain in the country and work legally. These “Dreamers” (named after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that would have given them legal status, had Congress passed it) are the undocumented immigrants who raise the most public sympathy, because they did nothing wrong and have no other home they can return to. The U.S. has invested in their education, and it makes little sense to deport them just as they’re starting to become productive.

Politico reports that Trump plans to end DACA with a six-month delay, which would give Congress time to change the law to protect some or all of the 800,000 Dreamers, if it wants to.

This is not entirely crazy, because DACA was always a kluge of executive orders that President Obama built to cover Congressional inaction. The right solution is for Congress to pass some version of the DREAM Act, or maybe even some larger immigration reform (like the Senate passed in 2013). This was one of many situations where Obama saved Republicans from themselves: They could simultaneously denounce Obama’s “tyrannical” circumvention of the law while avoiding responsibility for the injustice the law mandates.

However, the Republican base regards the DREAM Act is a form of “amnesty”, which they are rabidly against. In this environment, it’s hard to imagine the House passing anything. And if they don’t, in six months ICE will start deporting college students who speak perfect English, but possibly no other language. I doubt Paul Ryan wants to see a steady stream of such stories as his people campaign for re-election next year.

and you also might be interested in …

Republicans only believe in local control until the workers win somewhere. Latest example: St. Louis, which raised its minimum wage three months ago, only to see the state force a wage rollback.

University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird has been studying the ways conspiracy theories flow through social media.

The information networks we’ve built are almost perfectly designed to exploit psychological vulnerabilities to rumor.

“Your brain tells you ‘Hey, I got this from three different sources,’ ” she says. “But you don’t realize it all traces back to the same place, and might have even reached you via bots posing as real people. If we think of this as a virus, I wouldn’t know how to vaccinate for it.”

Starbird says she’s concluded, provocatively, that we may be headed toward “the menace of unreality — which is that nobody believes anything anymore.” Alex Jones, she says, is “a kind of prophet. There really is an information war for your mind. And we’re losing it.”

It looks like this administration has no interest in changing the $20 bill to replace the guy who opened up the lower South for slavery (Andrew Jackson) with a woman who helped people escape slavery (Harriet Tubman). Seeing a black face on their money, I think, would hit Trump’s base on a visceral level: “We’re losing our country!”

Politico sums up the Democrats 2020 dilemma: “Familiar 70-somethings vs neophyte no-names“. Sanders, Biden, Warren, or somebody most of America has never heard of?

A bizarre thing I’m seeing on my Facebook feed: People who hated Hillary Clinton in 2016 are afraid that the dark cabal in control of the Democratic Party will nominate her again in 2020. These are the same people who have believed the worst stories about her all along. To them, she’s like some horror-movie villain that they fear can never die.

Business Insider does a takedown of Palmer Report, which produces a lot of thinly-sourced stories that appeal to liberals. Palmer’s stuff appears on my social media feeds fairly regularly, and I don’t give it much credence. If a claim looks interesting, I will make a mental note to check whether a reliable source is reporting anything similar.

Charles Blow connects some dots I hope aren’t really connected: Many of Trump’s divisive actions can be explained by the theory that he wants an armed insurrection when the Russia investigation finally forces him out of office.

A. Q. Smith writes in Current AffairsIt’s Basically Just Immoral to be Rich“. What’s interesting in the article is that it’s not a screed against capitalism or a plea for the government to redistribute wealth.

You can hold my position and simultaneously believe that CEOs should get paid however much a company decides to pay them, and that taxes are a tyrannical form of legalized theft. What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

There’s a third distinction I wish the article had made: Spending is different from either receiving or retaining. When you make money, you play the economic game as you find it. Retaining money may just mean letting a bank record a large number next to your name. (Smith’s point is that in retaining, you have the ability to feed the poor and pay for life-saving medical care, but choose not to.) But spending money is when you allocate the labor of others; if you spend on ridiculous luxuries for yourself, you’re bending the economy towards producing those things rather than either producing necessities for the many or investing in future production.

Since reading Smith’s article, I have not given away all my possessions and entered a life of voluntary poverty, so clearly I don’t find the argument totally convincing. But it is a question that I think should be raised more often, and that everybody who can afford more than basic necessities should have to think about.

I was initially attracted to ESPN the Magazine‘s interview with Aaron Rodgers (the consensus choice as the top NFL quarterback, for those of you who don’t follow football) because of his comments on the Colin Kaepernick situation. But it’s a fascinating conversation about family issues, race, being famous, religion, and the meaning of life, closing with: “I’ve been to the bottom and been to the top, and peace will come from somewhere else.”

A white Congregational minister in Charleston says white and black American Christianity are based on two different narratives about Ameria:

The white narrative said this: We’ve made it to the promised land. Life is good here. It’s the city on a hill. What a blessing. And the black narrative said this: We’ve been brought here in chains. It’s the new Egypt. What a curse. We’ve got to get the hell out of here. And therein lies a founding contradiction in American Christianity. One version celebrated and reinforced the status quo and another version sought liberation from it.

Ancestry isn’t destiny, though.

Of course, we don’t all fit neatly into one of two categories. Yours truly can often be found at vigils in the street or wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. But I had to lose my white religion to get there. I had to give up a narrative that supported the suffering of the status quo for one that dreamed of the liberation of all people from social and political oppression.

… For too long white Christianity has been part of the problem. Its narrative of a promised land has never rung true with those who were left out of the promise. If those of us who are white gave up that old story or walked away from it, we could begin to tell a larger truth. And we could find something more deeply American in the black church’s struggle for freedom, dignity, and equality.

But I think he’s missing a third narrative, the angry one of downwardly mobile white Christianity: America was the promised land of our grandparents, but we have been cast out.

and let’s close with some music

Alf Clauson just lost his job doing the musical score for The Simpsons. In honor of his career, The Washington Post picked out his 12 most memorable songs. Because it’s Labor Day, I’ll highlight Lisa’s union song. (I suspect copyright issues won’t let YouTube post the video, so they fill in with generic Simpsons stills.)

Trump has no agenda

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

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

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

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

So who are they and where is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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