Thursday, October 17, 2019

How did Mark Milley feel when Pelosi said, "All roads with you lead to Putin"?

Donald Trump tweeted this photo with the caption "Nervous Nancy's unhinged meltdown." Pelosi then maximized utility by making it her Twitter cover image.

Mark Milley is the Army general next to Trump -- one of the many men on Trump's side of the table wishing they were somewhere else. He's serving his first month as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff after being confirmed by the Senate in an 89-1 vote. I think it's most interesting to imagine the meeting from his perspective.

Early in the meeting, Trump handed out copies of the blustery letter he had written to Erdogan, which begins "Let's work out a good deal! You don't want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy -- and I will." Apparently Erdogan put the letter in the trash. Milley has a Masters in International Relations from Columbia, and he knows that this is utterly ridiculous.

Trump then called former general James Mattis "The most overrated general in the world. You know why? He wasn’t tough enough. I captured ISIS. Mattis said it would take two years. I captured them in one month." Milley has been in the military for 39 years, and I doubt he enjoys hearing this language from a man who claimed bone spurs to avoid military service.

Milley had warned during the meeting that ISIS was "not destroyed" and could "reconstitute" if Erdogan's attack on the Kurds freed captured ISIS fighters. Trump then claimed that only the least dangerous ISIS fighters had escaped. When Chuck Schumer asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper if any intelligence confirmed this, Esper said there was no such intelligence.

Schumer then asked Trump, “Is your plan to rely on the Syrians and the Turks?” Trump replied, “Our plan is to keep the American people safe.” Pelosi told him, “That’s not a plan. That’s a goal.”

Trump then complained about Obama and started insulting Pelosi. She told Trump that he gave Moscow a foothold in the Middle East. As far as I can tell, the photo is taken as she says, "All roads with you lead to Putin."

There are many other ashen-faced men on Trump's side of the table. But it's Milley's torment that seems the most exquisite to me. His boss has just been arrogantly stupid on issues his entire career has trained him to understand. Now he is forced to contemplate working for a President who has been compromised by the enemy.

If he thought Pelosi's remark was unfair or wrong, he might be glaring back at her, or at least sitting with a straight-necked military bearing. But he isn't. His head is bowed, his hands are clasped, and his eyes are squeezed shut.

The marble bust of Benjamin Franklin stares sternly over his shoulder. Behind Pelosi in the photo is a statue of George Washington. I wonder if he tried not to meet their eyes when he left the Cabinet Room.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Legislative leadership

I often make boasts like like "I've been a Nancy Pelosi superfan ever since the Ice Age." Just for verification / trivia purposes, here's me blogging in the Washington Monthly back in 2008 about how she had defeated Social Security Privatization three years before. You might have heard me tell this story before.

Most people understand politics in terms of Presidential elections, probably because those are the most-publicized political events. But for determining policy, legislative politics is no less important. Good legislative leadership is about counting votes, trading favors, and having a good sense of political possibilities. Speechmaking and PR are secondary considerations.

Presidents are outdoor politicians. Speakers and Majority / Minority Leaders are indoor politicians, operating from their proverbial smoke-filled rooms. If you watch legislative politics for a while and try to grasp what's driving the outcomes, you start to learn what makes a good indoor politician.

In the case of my recent conversion on impeachment, the issue was just thinking I can trust Pelosi on when coordination is likely to break down with Republican Senators. It's a matter of understanding when votes might move around -- not necessarily to remove, but to get a worthwhile outcome. Understanding instabilities in the other side's caucus is part of what she did to beat privatization. I trust she can do that again.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Pelosi supports impeachment, so I do too

Nancy Pelosi has initiated a formal impeachment inquiry. I've been an impeachment naysayer all year. But when Pelosi changes positions, I change too. I'll explain.

I opposed impeachment because the Senate trial looked like a disaster. Several Senate Democrats (Manchin, Tester, Jones) seemed ready to vote for acquittal. This would marginalize the charges against Trump going into the 2020 election and make it harder to put pressure on Republicans.

Moreover, most of the rules for conducting an impeachment trial can be changed by a Senate majority vote. This lets Mitch McConnell turn the trial into whatever he wants, if he can hold a majority. After the Kavanaugh confirmation, I anticipated the horror of my Democratic friends when the impeachment trial became whatever celebration of Trump's innocence McConnell wanted. It would be a hideous mockery of accountability.

All of this comes down to Senate vote totals. Get 4 Republicans to join united Democrats, and you have a majority that takes control out of McConnell's hands. And a bipartisan majority vote against Trump -- while insufficient for removing him -- would at least send the right message rather than the wrong one.

Pelosi counts votes better than any politician in my lifetime. Remember McConnell losing Obamacare repeal on the Senate floor after John McCain gave him the thumbs down? Pelosi doesn't let that happen. What she does is governed by her knowledge of the vote totals -- what they are, and what they'll become in a variety of possible future situations.

I think she's moving now because the Ukraine scandal has finally loosened things up in the Senate to where we have a shot at winning over Republicans. Senate Republicans are more fractured over this scandal than anything else, with Burr, Sasse, Romney, and Toomey cited in the media as alarmed. If this doesn't hold up for some reason, Pelosi might wait for a better setup in the future. But this as good an opportunity as anything we've seen.

This scandal hits close to home for Republican Senators. They don't want a future Democratic President using federal money to bribe foreign rulers for dirt on them. If only they cared so much about brown children in cages! But if this is what will make them turn on Trump, it's what we go with. It's how to get an impeachment process that really damages him and his party.

I've been actively following Congressional politics for 15 years now. It's been 15 years of watching Pelosi make the right move on every big issue, because she could see how the votes would go. It's how she stopped Bush from privatizing Social Security, how she turned the Democratic Party to favor withdrawal from Iraq, and how she passed Obamacare when everyone thought it was doomed.

Now she's on the march. I march with her.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Veggie mutton biryani

Apparently I have the Buddhists to thank for fake mutton, one of the best veggie meats I’ve encountered in Singapore. This biryani plate and a cheap mango lassi went for $5 SGD ($3.62 USD) at a university cafeteria.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Ibid

In my first year of college, I encountered "Ibid" in a footnote. I had heard of an ancient poet named Ovid, so I assumed that Ibid was one of his contemporaries. As the footnotes continued, I was impressed by how significant Ibid's work had been -- he was getting cited again and again!

Friday, August 30, 2019

Elizabeth Warren is favored in Iowa

Elizabeth Warren is leading in the favorability averages of the historically best Iowa pollsters, compiled by Nate Silver. Biden still leads the national polls. But I think these Iowa numbers are underrated in contemporary internet speculation. If you're worried that Biden might coast to the nomination, let me render Optimism Guy services in my new Elizabeth Warren Fan Club uniform.

First, some history about Iowa and why it's historically such a big deal. It's the first actual election in the primary, so it's a huge focus of media coverage, and plays a major role in winnowing the field. That's the point at which the primaries become more a mass-media story rather than an inside story for activist types. And with the national primary coming on, lots of people are starting to seriously decide how to vote. It's the moment when you want the media to treat you as the popular candidate on an upswing. You do this... by winning Iowa! It's the place where Obama became the front-runner in 2008. There are changes of various sorts that probably dampen this effect a little relative to history, but I think it's still significant.

Now for our polls. Among Iowa Democrats, Warren's favorable-unfavorables lead the pack at 80-11, followed by Harris at 73-10 and Mayor Pete at 72-7. Bernie is at 68-24, and only then do we see Biden at 67-24.

We're in the stage where candidates start to drop out. Because these polls register information about how you might vote if your first choice drops out, they're better for predicting the direction of consolidation than polls that just ask you about your first choice. And that direction of consolidation favors Warren.

Nicely, it also favors Harris, Pete, and Bernie (MoE tho) over Biden. They each have a decent electability case -- Harris with minority turnout, Bernie with good general-election poll numbers, and Pete with skillful navigation of the media environment. I think they'd all make much better presidents than Biden, who really has the full versions of bad traits that people attack the other three for in overheated primary debates.

In summary: Warren is on top in a highly consequential polling average. If she falters, some alternative superior to Biden gets a serious shot. If you're a Warren fan or an anybody-but-Biden type (I'm both), Iowa favors you.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

China policy: Hong Kong heroism and American uselessness

The right China policy for the West seems to be something like this: We'd like to maintain good trade relations, expand immigration, and sign treaties to reduce our militaries. But human rights abuses will be met with trade sanctions, and we'll promote a NATO-like regional security alliance with China's democratically governed Pacific Rim neighbors who don't want to be invaded.

The hope is to set the right incentives and keep things in China from getting worse. The threat of sanctions for human rights abuses will get economic interests to push against those abuses. Well-coordinated defense will prevent China from invading its neighbors and get it to sign the arms treaties. If all goes well, China moves towards liberal democracy through the gentle slow process of cultural engagement. It works -- it's a big part of how Communism fell in Eastern Europe.

America's China policy is not on that track right now. Donald Trump is starting trade wars not to punish repression, but because he likes trade wars. Relations between Japan and South Korea are falling apart, and where diplomats of any previous Administration would be mending things between top regional allies, we're not seeing that right now.

That brings us to Hong Kong. The Chinese-approved government supported legislation to make it easier to extradite people from Hong Kong to China, using a recent sensational murder as a pretext. Public outcry in Hong Kong was intense. The government says that the legislation is dead, but hasn’t formally withdrawn it. Protestors are calling for further reforms, including genuinely democratic elections. The protests have been amazing, with over a million people sometimes coming out. Recently they shut down the airport. This photo shows protestors surrounding police headquarters.


At a time when America is being useless, the protestors in Hong Kong are making an amazing display of nonviolent force. They aren't getting any cover from America's erratic trade policy, and they can't count on much in the way of outside support. They're just asserting their own control over Hong Kong for Beijing to see, and demanding democracy. I hope we can set them up to receive the support they deserve around about January of 2021.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Trump's trade war

This is a chart of the S&P 500 over the last five days. If you're not a stock market person, but you're curious about the weird effects of Donald Trump on the economy, I'd like to tell you about it.

At first we're on a plateau for a while, and then there's that quick jagged shock from which we recover. That's the Federal Reserve's decision to make a single interest rate cut, but not suggest more. The market seems to have more or less expected this. The economy has continued the upward trend that began in the early Obama administration, so the Fed didn't want to give more.

Trump has been feuding with Jerome Powell, the Fed chair. Trump wants more economy-boosting interest rate cuts as he goes up for re-election. He's unhappy that the Fed gave him only one.

In his statements afterwards, Powell said that he would cut rates again if things looked worse for the economy. He also said that trade wars were bad for the economy. Trump likes trade wars. And he likes pushing people around. So why not push Powell around with a trade war?

So then we fall off a cliff, and we don't get back up, and then slide down further. That's Trump tweeting surprise 10% tariffs on Chinese goods. (Into Christmas season! Think of the poor retailers!) The market understood interest rates, but so far, it's acting like it didn't understand Trump.

In the last part (today) we fall off another cliff. That's today's 3% decline, off the weekend's news that China devalued its currency. The Chinese are saying, "You want to make our goods more expensive? Well we can undo that by making them cheaper to you! Also forget about exporting to us, nobody can afford dollars here go away."

On a scale of zero to trade war, we're past the talking phase and into the action phase. It's just small actions now, but it's actions. Also Trump is having what has become a dominance fight with Powell on the side, and it pushes US-China towards further intimidation.

A moral of the story: Trump is less controlled by Wall Street than most Republicans. Instead, he's controlled by ego and racism. At least on the tariff issue, I think this is worse.

I think there can be good reasons for trade restrictions. Don't buy stuff made by slave labor, or stuff that destroys the environment. (In general, explore Pigouvian strategies).

But these aren't Trump's reasons. And in general, it's good for everyone to get the best deals in the world on stuff. If not, there's some interesting explanation of why not. What's going on inside Donald Trump doesn't correspond to any such interesting explanation.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Elizabeth Warren's wealth tax is a great plan

As Vox has described, she'll tax wealth above $50 million at a 2% rate, and wealth above $1 billion at a 3% rate. Emmanuel Saez (Piketty's frequent collaborator) "estimates this tax would hit approximately 75,000 families and raise $2.75 trillion over a 10-year period."

The Vox article also notes that the tax would reduce private investment, since that's what it's taxing. This is fine. Private investment has bad returns these days. Look at what Apple did with its Trump tax cut: it bought back shares of its own stock. The greatest consumer technology innovator of recent decades couldn't find a new innovative business to assemble. So it just spent the money on raising its stock price and not building anything socially productive.

Low interest rates on bonds are a further sign that private capital can't find any productive place to invest itself. Aaa-rated corporate bonds returned 8% in the mid-90s, but only 3.29% today. In other words, there's so little good stuff for private capital to invest in that investors are accepting annual returns of only 3.29%. This is what a future of increasing income inequality will look like -- the increasingly vast wealth of the rich chasing a range of investment opportunities that doesn't grow as fast. Since 1980, inequality has widened as bond rates have fallen.

We're likely to get better social returns on investment in infrastructure, child care, science, and education. Many of these things don't work as private-sector investments because there's no way for private investors to reap the social good that they've sown. The benefits of making more scientists are distributed among the many beneficiaries of their discoveries in a way that won't come back as profit to a private investor.

Great utility is achieved if the government takes the money away from private investors and makes more scientists, which profit-driven private investment doesn't do very well. Excessive focus on private investment over recent decades has led us to neglect public investment. The wealth tax removes investment capital from the low-return private sector and puts it in the more promising public sector.

There are all sorts of implementation issues to be resolved, but they're worth resolving. For example, to stop the wealthy from hiding wealth overseas, we'll need to beef up the ability of the IRS to chase down vast investments, and set up international frameworks for tracking wealth. So let's do these things!

In general, I don't recommend donating to Presidential campaigns. Definitely not general-election campaigns, but probably not primaries either. Your money has much more impact on lower-level races. Jeff Merkley's Leadership PAC, which helps us retake the Senate and put it in the hands of its most skilled progressive legislator, is my #1 pick.

But I've given $100 to Elizabeth Warren's campaign. It's a token amount, but she'll have one more small donor to boast of. Perhaps it'll help in some small way to make her plans reality.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Warren and Sanders win the debate

In last night's debate, the moderators set John Delaney to attack Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He did so by calling Sanders and Warren's plans "fairy tale economics." (Plans like theirs have been successful in Europe, which is a real place and not just a location from fairy tales. I actually went there recently and it was very nice.)

Warren's counterattack won the night: "I don't understand why anybody goes to the trouble of running for President of the United States, just to talk about what we can't do and shouldn't fight for." I don't understand why Delaney ran either, but I'm glad he did, as footage of Warren annihilating dim-bulb centrists was something the world needed.

There was also a nice moment when Tim Ryan interrupted Sanders to question whether Medicare for All would cover the things he claimed. Sanders' reply that it would -- "I wrote the damn bill!" -- had the audience applauding and Ryan silently seething on the split screen.

(In 2009, Tim Ryan initially voted to prevent Obamacare from covering abortion. Nancy Pelosi did something -- I don't know what -- to make him back down and support abortion coverage on final passage through the House. Then in 2015, he tried and failed to organize a centrist campaign against Pelosi as Democratic leader. As I'm probably the internet's biggest Pelosi fan, seeing Bernie give Ryan a good whacking was deeply gratifying for me.)

Both Sanders and Warren need to solidify their positions as second choices for each others' voters. Attacking boring moderates who are polling near zero is a good way to do it, as they have few fans for you to alienate. From what I can tell, Sanders and Warren genuinely like each other, as makes sense for ideological people who share an ideology. And it totally works as strategy.

After the debate lineups were announced, I remember Kathleen Geier wishing that Sanders and Warren would join forces against various annoying centrists. It sounded too good to hope for, so I tried not to hope for it. But it really does make sense, and it actually happened! What a wonderful night.