Sunday, December 31, 2017


Thank you again, Yastreblyansky and Crank, for some great work while I was away.

I'm coming late to the discussion of President Trump's interview with Michael Schmidt of The New York Times. The full interview hasn't been published; what we have are "excerpts" that "have been lightly edited for content and clarity, and omit several off-the-record comments and asides." Yastreblyansky says that the Times should publish the entire transcript unedited; I agree -- or publish it as close to unedited as permissible (omitting portions the president insisted were off the record).

Or maybe it would be better to have the audio. I'd like to hear how the president sounded, because after the excerpts were published there was a lot of discussion about the president's mental state. Charlie Pierce, who wrote a book about his father's Alzheimer's and whose aunts and uncles also suffered from the disease, is certain that Trump is showing signs of cognitive decline, as afre many other readers.

I've seen full-blown dementia in my family. I once watched an aging relative try to dip a spoon into a photograph of a plate of food on a restaurant placemat. But another relative lived with mild cognitive impairment that persisted until death but didn't worsen. According to the Mayo Clinic, those suffering from mild cognitive impairment are at high risk of developing Alzheimer's, but that doesn't inevitably happen. MCD might be what Trump is experiencing.

On the other hand, Trump is lazy. He sought a job that should have required him to master many subjects, but he clearly believed he could get by without deep study. He likes to tell us that he has a "very good brain"; he boasts that he understands subjects better than the experts do. In the Schmidt interview, he says, "I know the details of taxes better than anybody. Better than the greatest C.P.A. I know the details of health care better than most, better than most." When Trump says these things, I don't think he's just trying to impress us; I think he's telling us how he sees himself. He doesn't like to work hard, but he's persuaded himself that he's so extraordinarily gifted he doesn't need to. (He has, he's told us, "good genes, very good genes.") So are we watching a man whose mind isn't working properly -- or are we watching a man who isn't really trying?

If, like Trump, you were lazy and were certain you could get away with doing very little work, you'd reduce every complex subject to simple phrases -- for instance, "no collusion." If you were a huckster like Trump, you'd do the same thing. He's keeping it simple, stupid -- except that he's doing that in his own mind as well as for public consumption by his base.

I also think Twitter and Fox News have diminished Trump's interest in complex thought. Twitter is all aphorisms and invective; Fox finds a way to reduce every story to a simple morality tale in which greatness flows from True Conservatism and evil thrives everywhere else. Fox sells conservatism the way Trump has always sold Trump -- no complexity, no fine print, just cheerleading. Enemies? Fox and Trump take the same approach: find a weakness, or even an aspect that can be sold as a weakness, and never stop pounding away at it. Fox is praise and blame but never knowledge in depth. That suits Trump -- he just wants to know what to boast about and what to attack; acquiring deep knowledge is hard work he'd rather avoid.

Years ago, Trump must have needed to sweat the details at least some of the time. But I think he's left the complicated stuff to others for so long that his mind has atrophied. His eating, sleeping, and dietary habits don't help either. Is this true cognitive impairment? It could be, but I don't think we know for certain.

Saturday, December 30, 2017


Via Zenpundit.

I think that really gets it about right. I'll go further: I think the Michael Schmidt interview of Trump at the Palm Beach golf club isn't pure-stenography enough. I can't understand why they don't print the entire, unedited transcript, as with the one with the Washington Post editorial staff, Frederick Ryan, Fred Hiatt, Ruth Marcus, back in March 2016, where we could have learned everything we needed to know, as Taylor Dibbert blogged at the time:
Another takeaway from the interview (which has been mentioned by numerous commentators already) is that it’s still quite unclear how a Trump presidency would work in practice. Trump continues to have a hard time explaining how he’d implement his ideas. On other occasions, he doesn’t really answer questions. The Donald is, quite frankly, drowning in vagaries and obfuscation.
“I know China very well,” Trump tells us.
Shortly thereafter, Trump expands upon his nuanced view of Middle Eastern affairs. “My prognostications, my predictions have become, have been very accurate, if you look,” he claims.
“I’m an intelligent person,” he reminds us. And then he reminds us again, moments later.
It was all there, the inability to conceive what it is presidents do, the belligerent insistence on his superiority, the lack of basic information and the coping strategies with which he hides it, the repetitions and unawareness that he's repeating himself, the paranoid defensiveness, and the performativity.

A performative sentence (as defined by the English analytic philosopher J.L. Austin in the 1950s) is one that doesn't convey information but accomplishes a social task: "With this ring I thee wed" or "The meeting is adjourned". A unique feature of the way Trump talks above and beyond the signs of encroaching dementia (ably pointed out by Mr. Pierce) is that practically everything he says is performative, the way he's never really using the words to tell something but to do something, to shore up his defenses or send out a skirmishing party.

Immediately after introducing his foreign policy advisers off a piece of paper in his pocket, that's what the Wapo interview in retrospect became famous for, with the soon-to-be notorious Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, because not having any foreign policy staff or knowing anything about foreign policy was what he was being criticized for at the time, not to tell the interviewers what his foreign policy ideas were but to establish that the staff existed and he therefore shouldn't be criticized—
Walid Phares, who you probably know, PhD, adviser to the House of Representatives caucus, and counter-terrorism expert; Carter Page, PhD; George Papadopoulos, he’s an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy; the Honorable Joe Schmitz, [former] inspector general at the Department of Defense; [retired] Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg; and I have quite a few more. 
—he moved into attacking Wapo and maneuvering into a kind of deal posture with the newspaper, establishing what kind of reporter could expect a friendly reception from him:
we’re working hard, I think we’re all in the same business of trying to make our country better, a better place, so we have something in common. I’ve been treated very, very badly by The Washington Post, but, you know, I guess — and I’m your neighbor, I’m your neighbor right down the road, in fact we’re actually giving a press conference there in a little while, I think your people are going to be there. And by the way, Bob Costa is an excellent reporter, I’ve found him to be just an excellent reporter. I should tell you, because I have to give you the good and the bad. Not that he does me any favors, because he doesn’t, but he’s a real professional.
You can see him doing the same kind thing with Schmidt on Thursday, the minute the tape recorder is turned on, in response to a question about Jeff Sessions and his recusal from matters relating to the Mueller investigation:

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Song of Dershowitz

Pablo Picasso, "Old Man Seated", Mougins (1970), via Artchive.

The Song of Dershowitz
by Donald J. Trump

He’s been amazing.
And he’s a liberal Democrat.
I don’t know him.
He’s a liberal Democrat.
I watched Alan Dershowitz the other day, he said,
No. 1, there is no collusion,
No. 2, collusion is not a crime,
but even if it was a crime,
there was no collusion.
And he said that very strongly.
He said there was no collusion.
And he has studied this thing very closely.
I’ve seen him a number of times.
There is no collusion,
and even if there was,
it’s not a crime.
But there’s no collusion.

Cross-Posted at The Rectification of Names.

Annals of Derp: The Gallup Most Admired

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Gypsy girl with Basque drum. Via Enigm-Art.

You know who's really the most admired woman in the United States? Somebody you've never heard of. I'm not even kidding: that was the answer 13% of the respondents in Gallup's 2017 survey, "friend/relative". The most frequent answer, given by 27%, was "don't know". Hillary Clinton only came in third, at 9%. Or maybe she was more like 13%, or 5%, because there's a four-point margin of error.

Puttting it another way, this is a really dumb survey, and always has been. It may tell you how many Americans say they admire Hillary the most of all women, around nine in a hundred, or around 94 of their 1,049 respondents (the given number is some manipulation of the raw numbers of those who named her as first and as second choice both). It doesn't tell you who America admires the most—that would take a different kind of poll, maybe taking the top 50 names on these lists and asking a second sample to rank them all.

It doesn't signify nothing. There is some kind of meaning to the suggestion that Barack Obama is more admired than Donald Trump (though only 17% to 14%, well within the margin of error), or that Hillary Clnton is still definitively on the women's list (9% to 7% for Michelle Obama). But it isn't much.

And down below the scale, where Condoleezza Rice and Melania Trump are tied for seventh place at 1% each, about the same as Bernie Sanders (7th place) and Bill Gates (8th place) on the men's list, it's really meaningless. It's comical and a little pathetic when the Free Beacon calls attention to the prime minister of Israel:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is America's most admired foreign democratically elected male leader, according to an annual Gallup survey.
Netanyahu was ninth overall on the list of most admired men by Americans, with about 1 percent of respondents naming him. He is currently the second-longest serving prime minister in Israel's history after David Ben-Gurion.
The Dalai Lama was 11th on the list.
Fewer than one in a hundred think of naming Netanyahu, and fewer still of the Dalai Lama (who's actually tied for 10th place, with Mike Pence and Jeff Bezos). What differentiates him from Justin Trudeau at 13, Theresa May (14 on the women's list), Aung San Suu Kyi (much further down), Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, and Nelson Mandela and Benazir Bhutto, the last two not even alive though the questionnaire specified that they had to be, is pretty much random error.

It's fun to talk about these numbers, but you should avoid thinking you learned anything from them,

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Profane and Rambunctious

One disadvantage of a largemouth. Via AnimalSake.

Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, celebrated military historian and literary stylist, in the National Review Online, on Harry Truman ("The Bigmouth Tradition of American Leadership"):
Harry Truman talked too much. He swore. He drank. He played poker. He was petty to the point of stooping to spar with a music critic who dismissed his daughter’s solo performances. His profanity was an open secret, as well as his temper. His advisers constantly cautioned him to tone it down.
As a Missourian who had once gone bankrupt and recouped with a political career though the help of the corrupt Prendergast machine, Truman carried a chip on his shoulder throughout his political career on the East Coast.
Yes, he's arguing here, on a somewhat circuitous path, that Truman (as compared to reticent, non-swearing, non-drinking, non-gambling Eisenhower) is pretty much the same as his alphabetical neighbor Trump. Or "Think Andrew Jackson of [sic for "or", no copy editing at NRO] Teddy Roosevelt." (Disregarding the other cliché possibility of reminding us that TR advised everybody to "speak softly".)  Or William Tecumseh Sherman (as opposed to taciturn, but hard-drinking Grant, who was also, Hanson informs us, "naïve about the scoundrels who surrounded him"), or General Patton as opposed to General Bradley (who was "steady if not, on occasion, obsequious to his superiors in public and haughty to his inferiors in private", glad to hear he was occasionally not obsequious to his superiors, that's certainly praiseworthy):
Mercurial Is Not Always Wrong
Not saying Trump is exactly like Truman. "Yet":
For all his first-year achievements, an unpopular Trump is hardly yet an accomplished Patton or Truman. Nonetheless, we need to take a deep breath and concede that sometimes past mellifluous appeasement is more dangerous than present flamboyant deterrence — just as the sober and discreet can be more adroit in warping the Constitution through distortions and corruptions of the Justice Department, the IRS, the FBI, and the FISA courts than are the profane and rambunctious.
He's such a terrible writer. Lovely how he unlashes himself there from the mast of cliché ("take a deep breath") only to tumble into the rough sea of senselessness ("sometimes past mellifluous appeasement"). Glad to hear that Trump will be less adroit than some at warping the Constitution. I personally find the past to be always less dangerous than the present, but maybe that's just because I don't live there.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

Jon Swift Memorial Roundup 2017

Image via WeAreTeachers.

This is the time of year for one of blogdom's sweetest traditions, the Jon Swift Memorial Roundup, curated by Batocchio, where dozens of bloggers submit a favorite piece of writing from the previous year to a wildly varied, hilarious and horrifying feast for readers, founded by the great satirist and friend to the little blogger Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who died in 2010 at the age of 46, and carried on as a commemoration and celebration of his life and writing.

Everybody gets a trophy, because we all brought our own. There's always some terrific writing from somebody you've never heard of and would like to know better, as well as friends you might have been neglecting over the previous year. So check it out.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

American Visigothic

After a chaotic start, the Roman Senate—sometimes working with Emperor Honorius holed up in Ravenna, sometimes against him—racked up a solid record of conservative accomplishment in 409, firmly letting their British colony know that it would have to defend itself from here on (Italia First!); improving troubled relations with Alaric the Visigoth by making him commander-in-chief of the Western Empire (magister utriusque militiae), paying him a substantial bribe, and naming an alternative local emperor, Priscus Attalus, more to Alaric's liking; not to mention passing an edict forbidding anybody to wear trousers within the city walls.

Actually the edict on the trousers dated back to 399, but you see what I mean.

Evariste-Vital Luminais (1821-96), Alaric's forces in the sack of Rome, 410.

Well, on this subject, my old lady knows one genuinely wealthy guy who owns two or three Manhattan boutique hotels, who told her the secret of getting rich: that you can't care about anything but the money. In particular you can't be distracted by the content of the work you do, the purpose of hotels, or television shows, or whatever. You must focus remorselessly on that bottom line.

This is the skill of the successful psychopath (of whom there are a lot: psychopathy being, as we learned last year, before the election, twenty times as common among CEOs as it is among the general population. Psychopaths often do very well, precisely because of that exclusive focus on the abstract goal without regard to the subject matter, as forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks told The Australian in August 2016:
“Typically psychopaths create a lot of chaos and generally tend to play people off against each other,” he said.
“For psychopaths,  it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others.”
At least until the chaos of internal conflict and criminality they typically create becomes too much for an organization to tolerate, when they explode. Yglesias is absolutely right to remind us that Trump has succeeded so far in his central goal of being at the top, but he's done it by ignoring all the content of the job—he'd hardly be able to comprehend any of the technical details anyway, but he doesn't try, rarely learning what is going on in his own government unless he sees it discussed on TV—while he devotes his energy to seeding dissension and mutual fear in the ranks below him.

It is indeed remarkable, but it's not sustainable. It's true that as that Times story notes Congress has approved 12 federal appeals court judges, which is apparently quite a lot, but they're finally starting to push back against the terrible quality of the nominees, and it's true that this terrible grab bag of a tax bill, with its lashings out at everything from government-backed health insurance to the possible fossil fuels of the Arctic, has been signed into law, but none of its parts are connected to each other, and it will never have the durability of (say) the Affordable Care Act. Trump's people have worked with some success at unmaking things, like our environmental law and immigration system, but they haven't made anything other than his own fragile position. It's amazing, as Yglesias says, but so is every bubble, while it lasts.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Now that we’re busy driving away our friends, we can’t afford enemies any more. You can thank Donald Trump and Nikki Haley.

The so-called tax reform that just became law was an act of financial sabotage. It was committed exclusively by the Republican side of the  House of Representatives and the Senate, and blessed every step of the way by Donald Trump. Had the economic sabotage that is bound to result somehow been inflicted on us by a foreign power, it would be an act of war. 

But the tax bill was just powder puff, compared to the act of sabotage committed against our nation by Nikki Haley and Donald Trump.


At the UN we're always asked to do more & give more. So, when we make a decision, at the will of the American ppl, abt where to locate OUR embassy, we don't expect those we've helped to target us. On Thurs there'll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.

And sure enough, they took a vote. And if Ambassador Haley took names the way she promised she would, she most assuredly must be suffering from a severe case writers’ cramp.

A mere seven nations out of 193 voted with the United States. Should the United States ever be attacked again, by means ranging from from something like another 9/11-style hijack-and-crash attack, to Kim Jung Un’s nukes, who will we have to join us in the defense of our own nation?

Well, of the seven countries we can absolutely, positively, definitely count on because we haven’t told them to go stuff themselves, let's start with the Federated States of Micronesia, 

Umm Nikki? How big an army do you think the Federated States of Micronesia can raise and deliver to the battlefield, next time the USA needs help?

Excuse me, Nikki, I can’t hear you. Could you speak a little louder?  No no, louder than that. Nikki? Nikki?

Nevermind, I’ll do it for you.

The Federated States of Micronesia consists of  four little islands stuck out there in the Pacific ocean. The total population for all four of ‘em combined is roughly 105,000. 

I know, I know, size doesn’t matter. I mean between just two of the Islands alone, Chuuoi and Yap, they could probably raise half a squad of really scary guys armed with clubs and rocks. Maybe even bottles.

Yes yes, I hear you, Nikki. We’ve also got the Republic of Palau on our side. And was that Donald I just heard whispering that Palau is really big — he means yuuge — compared to four-island Micronesia. They don’t just have four islands, Palau has 340 islands. Let me write that out for you. Three hundred and forty islands! There! That should help us out in a pinch. 

What’s that? They have only about 21,500 people total on those 340 Islands? An average of 89.5 people per island?  Well then, what about the nations of Nauru and and Togo? Not to mention the Marshall Islands?

Same kind of story? Well, didn’t any nation that most of us ill-educated Americans have never heard of side with us? 

They did? Great! Who? 

Ah hah! Guatemala and Honduras! I’ll bet Vladimir Putin and Kim Jung Un are quaking in their boots at the thought of an invading army from Guatemala and Honduras.

Okay, let me get to the point of all this now. The truth of the matter is, we don’t really need ISIS, or Al-Qaeda, or Russia, or North Korea to crash our military strength, or to implode our economy, or to sink our battleships and our prestige around the world.

We have Nikki Haley and Donald Trump to do it for us.

But let me leave the last word to Nikki. Listen as, with cold and very blind fury, she hammers a stake into her own nation’s heart by telling nearly the entire population of the planet, outside of the United States, and Micronesia, and Palau and Narau, and so on, that they can all go screw themselves.

Yule be sorry

Photo by jag9889 at Flickr.

For my whole life, Macy's Herald Square, the World's Largest Store, recycled an increasingly dingy-looking window display every Christmas consecrated to the store's own peak presence in popular culture, the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, starring Natalie Wood as the little girl raised not to believe in fairy tales and Edmund Gwenn as Mr. Kris Kringle, the man who believes he is Santa Claus and who ends up not only convincing the little girl that he exists but in bringing about a Christmas truce between the warring titans of capitalism, Macy's and Gimbel's.

But a couple of years ago they finally abandoned it in favor of something new, referring to the story of Virginia O'Hanlon, the eight-year-old who asked the New York Sun, in 1897, to confirm for her the same saint's existence, to which the editor Francis Pharcellus Church notoriously replied, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," in language attempting to double-speak the audience between parents who'd see the line as a metaphor and children who wouldn't:
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there.
They lifted the window-dressing concept from a Lord & Taylor display of 2003, and the plot line from a 2010 TV special with the voice of Neil Patrick Harris, but animated with grotesque balloon-faced creatures like the Virgin Shopper who looms, with a sinister half-smile of psychopathic determination, over the 34th Street entrance, see above. And with the window display an awful soundtrack of pseudo-symphonic furniture music, shapeless and directionless, with bits that sound like the Capriccio Italien but without any harmonic movement, and an apotheosis of Jingle Bells in ballet adagio tempo, as if the one-horse sleigh were slowly inflating with hydrogen and rising into the air like the doomed Hindenburg. (Yes, I work in the neighborhood and walk by there a lot.)

This is a bad development not only from the aesthetic but also from the moral and theological standpoint. Seems to me the United States has hardly been a Christian nation ever, thank goodness, but a land of many cults, faiths, and spiritual disciplines, but that a kind of civic religion you might call Christmasism or Santaism has quietly grown up among us, the veneration of Santa-the-Bringer-of-Love, which is not in itself a bad thing, in spite of the furious Christianist put-the-Christ-back-in-Christmas criticism it's been given over the decades. It certainly has a vulgar cargo cult aspect, the mobs of us praying for more stuff, but also a more refined side marked by the spirit of sacrifice (O. Henry's ghastly story with the combs and the watch fob) and generosity, and the ritual incarnation of Santa, represented by the guys on Macy's eighth floor and the Salvation Army freaks out front but really embodied by all the parents, who are also the polis, in whom the Santa-spirit descends for a trance-moment from late November to the depression of New Year's Eve.

In traditional Christmasing, as firmed up around 1947, we're all acting out our dedication to the common good, realizing the Santa-spirit with our good actions, and this is beautifully dramatized in the film, with the Everyman figure, Mr. Kringle, embodying it—nobody is expected to believe he's physically coextensive with a 1600-year-old Anatolian bishop. He is all of us, doing Santa's will in our name, or symbolizing the good acts we are performing ourselves.

In postmodern Christmasing on the other hand, taking its inspiration from the "Yes, Virginia" editorial, a Leo Strauss deception has entered the picture:
Unable to find the answers she's looking for, Virginia writes to The New York Sun newspaper. Her letter makes its way to the desk of curmudgeonly editor Francis Church, who has better things to do than respond to a little girl's questions. But through Virginia's determination (and a little help from a scraggly Santa) Mr. Church is persuaded to write his answer that becomes the most famous newspaper editorial of all time. (IMDb)
The little girl coerces the editor to give her the answer she wants. And the reluctant deceiver is rewarded for the eloquence of his lie with incomparable fame! WTF is that about? And I can't help feeling the Calvinism aspect sneaks in at the same point, in the sense that this really-real Santa who distributes the presents like Grace according to the child's intrinsic niceness-naughtiness score is exercising his arbitrary universal judgment, as opposed to the parents embodying the Santa-spirit each taking care of their own as well as they can. It's a rightwing Santaism, and a cultural loss.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names. Good Yule, everybody!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Buyer's Remorse

Drawing by Chan Lowe, July 2016.
Can't help feeling some Schadenfreude on this, via Bloomberg:
Wall Street traders who rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more eagerly awaited a Republican overhaul of the U.S. tax code. Now, many are huddling with accountants and concluding the real gains will go to billionaires and other captains of the industry. Those in trenches -- the merely wealthy -- are grousing.
Atop their list of worries: New limits on deductions for mortgage interest and state and local taxes -- relatively high throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut -- will cost them thousands of dollars annually while depressing the value of their homes. That would chop local tax revenues and erode the quality of schools and other amenities traders expect for their families.
I could have told them. Most New Yorkers are getting a much less terrible break than feared a couple of weeks ago, because the first $10,000 in state and local tax is deductible, and while our income tax rates seem pretty high, they're also pretty progressive, only very few paying the scary marginal rate of 10.3% (state and city combined), and the property tax is actually quite low (effective 0.72% in NYC). But a lot of us, and not necessarily just the wealthier, are going to see at least slightly higher taxes, and not just in New York and California and Maryland and New Jersey and Oregon—it's Iowa and Nebraska, Idaho and Maine, Wisconsin and South Carolina, where I expect quite a number of deduction-itemizing Trump voters are going be a bit surprised to see their taxes going up as well:

If you're really doing well, at $500K and up kind of well, your after-tax income is going up, but there are many people who look pretty rich to me who are going to lose money.

If the authorities ever manage to draw up the new tables, which I think is going to take quite a while longer than the IRS hopes, which is that the withholding will be ready in February (per Brian Naylor/NPR):
It sounds relatively simple to change withholding tables — just plug some new numbers into the computer. But former IRS Commissioner John Koskinen says even simple changes are complex, thanks to Kennedy-era computer programs the agency uses. "A lot of our forms are hard-coded, so you don't just enter a little thing in your computer, you actually have to go into the code and change the date or change the forms," he says.
Making the job more difficult, the IRS's budget has been slashed by $900 million since 2010, resulting in 21,000 fewer employees. Koskinen, an Obama appointee who stepped down from the agency in November, worries the IRS could find itself in a disastrous spiral.
One place where the lack of IRS personnel might be most apparent is the agency's taxpayer help line. "It's going to be a nightmare," says Jennifer MacMillan, chair of the Government Relations Committee for the National Association of Enrolled Agents, which represents tax preparers. She says the IRS couldn't keep up with all the calls from taxpayers seeking help with their returns last year; many were kept waiting on hold for over an hour.
I can't help thinking this rollout is going to be a huge mess, and that at the end of it a great many of the people who find themselves getting an altogether bad deal are going to be typical Trump voters, older white guys with small businesses that have to itemize their deductions, tire retreading to Christmas tree growing, bars and barber shops, accountants and doctors, who do too much of their own work to qualify for the pass-through deduction, and are really used to those big state income and property tax deductions, who are getting a really pretty cruddy deal through this bill, compared to what they might have expected.

Along with those angry Wall Streeters:
A pair of hedge fund managers said they’ll stop donating to Republicans they’ve long supported. One of them said he spent weeks berating a politician who’s taken his money, arguing the tax bill is too tilted toward corporations, rather than individuals who should get more relief.
It's nothing compared to what's being done to Puerto Rico, where power may not be fully restored until May, thousands are still without safe drinking water or dry places to sleep, as Dana Milbank writes, and now the administration seems determined to literally destroy the manufacturing industry beyond what Maria did to the island, with insane tax policy:
The GOP tax bill, which Trump celebrated last week, treats Puerto Rico as a foreign country, imposing a 12.5 percent tax on the income that companies there receive from intellectual property — a big hit to its crucial pharmaceutical and medical-device sector. Rather than give Puerto Rico special tax treatment, which it urgently needs, Trump and his congressional allies gave employers a powerful reason to move jobs off the island.
But it could be enough to really piss a substantial number of erstwhile Trumpers off as we move big time into the political season around April 15 2018, with some of that buyer's remorse. This tax cut is big, but it's not for them, and it's not what they thought they were paying for.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

Taking Names

Partying hearty in Pyongyang after the ballistic missile test of August 2016. Photo by Reuters via The Independent.

Yes, 128 United Nations delegations insisted on sticking with their decades-long foreign policy and voting their disapproval of Emperor Trump's whimsical decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of the Jewish state without any acknowledgment of the interests of a Palestinian state that is supposed to have its capital in the same city, in contravention of decades of US policy as well and against the fervent pleas of his own national security advisers, even though Ambassador Haley had told them:
Haley writes: “As you consider your vote, I encourage you to know the president and the US take this vote personally.
“The president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those who voted against us,” she continued.
He's taking it personally. This isn't just a political decision, it's an attack on the august person. I can't get over this. So Haley swung remorselessly into action, like my dear sister Nancy when she was around four or five and would say, when anybody disrespected her, "You're not coming to my party!" That's speaking softly and carrying a big stick, huh?

Coincidentally, when the Security Council unanimously adopted a tightened sanctions regime against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea last week, the Kim Jong Un regime was swift to make its move:
“We define this 'sanctions resolution' rigged by the U.S. and its followers as a grave infringement upon the sovereignty of our Republic and as an act of war violating peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the region,” North Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement on state media Sunday.
Kim will be having a party too, undoubtedly, but he won't be inviting any countries. Not even Guatemala and Honduras. That's how a real emperor does it. Eat your hearts out, running dog capitalist roaders!

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.


Got family to see, presents to wrap, airport delays to endure on the way. Thank you for reading me all year. While I'm away, the relief crew will be here, and I'm extremely grateful for everything they've done this year. See you on December 31.

Merry? Happy? I'm going with Happy.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


The New York Times reports that the Trump administration tried to get rid of the carried interest loophole, but darn it, the thing somehow survived.
This week, as senior White House officials acclaimed passage of the tax overhaul in Congress, they also expressed one regret: failing to close the so-called carried interest “loophole” that benefits wealthy hedge fund managers and private equity executives. Despite Mr. Trump’s vows to eliminate a tax rule that allows some rich business leaders to pay lower tax rates than their secretaries, the president in this case was no match for the powerful lobbyists protecting the status quo.

“I don’t know what happened,” said Larry Kudlow, the conservative economist who crafted Mr. Trump’s campaign tax plan. “I don’t know how that thing survived,” he said, adding “I’m sure the lobbying was intense.”
Our tough-as-nails master dealmaker president got outplayed by the lobbying community -- somehow!
Gary D. Cohn, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council, ... said opposition from lobbyists and lawmakers on Capitol Hill was intense....

... Mr. Cohn suggested that Mr. Trump had met his match when it came to those carrying water for carried interest.

“The reality of this town is that constituency has a very large presence in the House and the Senate, and they have really strong relationships on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
Yes, there's the message: The loophole survived because it has backing from Democrats as well as Republicans, even though no Democrats had input into the writing of the bill.

Now, here's Trish Reagan of Fox Business Channel proclaiming her outrage at the survival of the loophole. She blames "the swamp." Notice what it consists of:

REGAN: The failure of Washington lawmakers to close a loophole in the tax code that enables a small percentage of Wall Street fat cats to make out like bandits, effectively paying half the income tax they actually should: It's known as the carried interest loophole, and it allows people like this guy, Steve Schwarzman, who made more than four hundred million dollars last year, to pay less tax -- less tax percentage-wise than, say, a New York City cop.

How do you like that? It's because Mr. Schwarzman likes to call his income that he earns from his labor an investment. Well, Mr. Schwarzman, it's not. But no one on Capitol Hill is going to tell you that or call you out, because we can report today that Mr. Steve Schwarzman gave more than three million dollars to -- wait for it -- none other than a Mitch McConnell-linked super PAC fund in 2016. And the private equity industry as a whole donated to 79 percent of all Senate seats. Both sides, everyone! This was a non-partisan issue that year. Both sides of the aisle. So, effectively, what these guys are doing, if Congress didn't make it, quote, legal, would be and should be considered criminal.

So you wonder why no one outside of our president -- who at least at one point in time cared about this issue, about this blatant inequality -- why does no one bother to address it? Because their campaigns are bankrolled by the industry, meaning the swamp is alive and well.
The Bernie-esque passion surprises me, but she's blaming the loophole's survival on the establishment in both parties, and arguing that while Trump may nave been coopted, the good Trump, the one from the campaign, sincerely wanted to fight these swamp dwellers, and would have closed the loophole if the bad Trump hadn't stopped him. Or something like that.

But as the Times story notes, nothing really prevented Trump from demanding an end to the loophole -- all he needed was his iPhone:
... [Financial industry lobbyist Mike] Sommers said that the wild card was the person living in the White House, and that he could never be too sure how things would play out. Mr. Trump made a habit throughout the process of wading into the tax debate through Twitter, sending lawmakers scrambling.

“We of course were concerned about an errant tweet from President Trump on this, or him doing something,” Mr. Sommers said.

In this case, the tweet never came.
Nope. Trump wasn't dragged into the swamp. He's lived there all his life.


As you know, AT&T gave its workers an early #MAGA Christmas present:
... AT&T boss [Randall Stephenson] — citing a mountain of cash the telecom giant will keep because of Trump’s tax cuts — said this week that AT&T will pay out $200 million to employees by awarding 200,000 of its rank-and-file year-end bonuses of $1,000 each.

That’s on the heels of last month, when CEO Stephenson pledged to create 7,000 jobs with $1 billion AT&T it expects to save on taxes.
Whoops! Sorry -- that was a gift to some of its workers. As for the rest...
Meanwhile, however, a slew of AT&T layoffs nationwide looks poised to claim casualties running into the thousands.... AT&T fired more than 700 cable installers earlier this month.

Elsewhere, sources said AT&T has lately laid off 215 high-skilled technician jobs in nine Southern states. Those jobs, many paying $36 an hour, will be eliminated in the first quarter, sources said....

Add to that 280 jobs that will be cut beginning Feb. 17 at AT&T’s Dallas credit and collections center, a source to AT&T confirmed. Also in February,  278 jobs will be cut at AT&T’s El Paso, Texas call center. Yet another 87 positions will be scaled back at the company’s Kansas City, Mo. credit and collections center, according to the source.

AT&T also fired an undisclosed number of workers in November at its Atlanta-based entertainment wireless group, a worker said.

This smattering of layoffs alone — likely only part of the looming bloodbath, according to sources — could save AT&T as much as $100 million.

As such, the total layoffs could save AT&T enough cash to offset the $200 million in bonuses it’s planning...
Did I mention that the story I'm quoting is in the New York Post? I guess enforcement of the Murdoch party line isn't quite as rigid as I thought.

AT&T last year showed its financial support for the Trump administration donating $2.1 million to his inauguration, according to public records.

Stephenson also is president of the Boy Scouts of America and arranged for Trump this year to speak in front of the scouts.

Still, Trump’s Department of Justice last month sued to block AT&T’s $85 billion deal to buy the Time Warner deal. Some speculate this week’s announcements about bonuses and jobs are a bid to curry favor with the White House.
Ya think?

This isn't even good PR. People who aren't getting #MAGA bonuses won't be happy for the lucky few -- they'll resent the fact that they weren't among the winners. That's especially true for those who were canned by a company that Trump is praising as magnanimous.

Also, if this was such a great idea, why was it a one-day story? When the wave of bonuses was announced, I thought there'd be a second wave the following day. That's how you imprint a story on people's memories. But this story had a primary audience of one -- the president -- and he wanted his big dopamine rush all at once. For that reason, the White House didn't manage the story well from a public relations perspective, and the corporations didn't either. But, of course, they don't really care what we think of them. They don't need us to like them. They think they need the president's approval. So this fake news was for him alone.

Friday, December 22, 2017


The little girl who thanks President Trump "for letting us say 'Merry Christmas' again" in this extremely early campaign ad is getting a lot of attention:

Charlie Pierce writes, "There's more than a little North Korea in this one." He's right, except for one thing: North Koreans are compelled to pay homage to the Dear Leader, and there are very serious consequences if they fall short in this effort. Members of the intended audience for this ad joined the personality cult voluntarily.

What's left of conservatism? In Washington, it's long been focused almost exclusively on tax cuts for the wealthy -- and now that that's accomplished, what remains as a rallying point for the base is nothing other than Trump worship, along with a legacy list of long-standing resentments.

And look, here's GOP congressman Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania expertly blending the two (on Fox, naturally):

I will tell you what. For those people on the Trump train or not on the Trump train, this is high-speed rail right now. And so if you’re not on the Trump train, you get on the train or get off the tracks. You’re gonna get run over. Look, the House had done its work in the appropriations. We had our 12 bills ready to go. Unfortunately it didn’t get through the Senate. But the big news — the big news is for America, you look at today, and I can tell you walking around the streets of Pittsburgh, people walking more erect, not just whispering ‘Merry Christmas’ but saying ‘Hey, Merry Christmas.’ You can feel it, you can see it. And I’m not just bumping sunshine for the sake of bumping sunshine. I am telling you, this is a different country. In 11 months, this president has changed the entire complexion of our entire country and our place in the world. We are no longer leading from behind, we are leading from the front and everybody else is looking to us and saying ‘go, go, go.’
Going into 2018, Democrats will be told by many Very Serious Pundits that they need a plan of action in order to win over voters. But Republicans won't have a plan of action -- all they'll have is "Trump is awesome and liberals suck!" Conservatism shrank itself down to a single idea -- tax cuts -- and now that the cuts are on the books, there's just Trump worship. I don't think voluntary North Korea-ism is going to hold the House (maybe the Senate), but we'll see.


Here's the lead story on the Washington Post website right now:
Trump advisers vent frustrations about 2018 strategy as president listens

Within hours of celebrating President Trump’s biggest legislative achievement, at the South Portico of the White House on Wednesday, his aides and outside advisers had a spirited, and at times tense, discussion with him about the political outlook ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

The gathering saw tempers flare as aides vented their frustrations with electoral defeats this year and concerns about the 2018 political map, according to several people with knowledge of the discussion. Complaints about the president’s political operation and the Republican National Committee boiled over, playing out in front of the president as an inner-circle drama.

The late-afternoon meeting — attended by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, counselor Kellyanne Conway, political director Bill Stepien, marketing and data specialist Brad Parscale, communications director Hope Hicks and political consultant and confidant Corey Lewandowski, among others — quickly became a griping session for Lewandowski and others about the way the White House manages the GOP and handles its planning for what is sure to be a hotly contested campaign season, people familiar with the meeting said.
Here's a related story from The New York Times:
Dispute Over Political Strategy Erupts Inside the White House

An Oval Office meeting involving President Trump and his top advisers on Wednesday devolved into a heated exchange between his former campaign manager and the White House political director, people briefed on the discussion said....

It ... underlined the turf battles and strategic disagreements that have long been characteristic of Mr. Trump’s circle, dating to his presidential campaign.
And from Politico, there's this:
Republicans warn Trump of 2018 bloodbath

A few weeks before Alabama's special Senate election, President Donald Trump’s handpicked Republican National Committee leader, Ronna Romney McDaniel, delivered a two-page memo to White House chief of staff John Kelly outlining the party’s collapse with female voters.

The warning, several people close to the chairwoman said, reflected deepening anxiety that a full-throated Trump endorsement of accused child molester Roy Moore in the special election ... would further damage the party’s standing with women....

The backstage talks provide a window into how those closest to Trump are bracing for a possible bloodbath in the 2018 midterms....

... on Wednesday, the president met with Kelly, political director Bill Stepien, communications director Hope Hicks, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director in the 2016 campaign, to discuss the political landscape. Lewandowski forcefully raised concerns about the party’s efforts....
It's not surprising that an administration with lousy poll numbers should be holding strategy sessions aimed at improving those numbers, even after a big legislative win and even with the holidays approaching. But why are Trumpers leaking news of a meeting like that? Why are they telling reporters about "griping sessions" and a "heated exchange"? They should be trying to unify the country -- around their big tax bill, around the holiday spirit, around something. But they're too busy feeding gossip to the media.

I'm sure the Trumpers would say that their 2016 campaign was regualrly accused of stepping on its own message, and that worked out, didn't it? But it worked out because of Russia, because of the peculiarities of the Electoral College, because of the last-minute FBI intrervention regarding Hillary Clinton's emails, and because Clinton was a much-maligned and thus unpopular candidate running for a third straight term in the White House for her party. And still the Trumpers lost the popular vote by millions.

This is why I'm not worried about well-financed GOP efforts to promote the glories of Trumponomics. We simply won't be talking about how the tax bill has made America great again. We'll be talking about whatever Trump is raving about on Twitter or we'll be talking about whatever backstairs gossip his aides are leaking to Maggie Haberman. These guys can't stay on message. It wasn't a fatal flaw in 2016, but it's been killing them ever since.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


I've admired Gabriel Sherman's work in the past, but his Vanity Fair profile of Steve Bannon is the work of a writer who developed a mild crush on his subject and allowed that subject to bamboozle him. Sherman is upfront about that. First he tells us that Bannon was a key participant in a smear campaign that led to threats of physical harm:
In August 2015, I received an e-mail from Kurt Bardella, who at the time handled Breitbart’s public relations. “Thought I’d reach out and just say that if you ever wanted to talk with Bannon on background, I think he’d def be willing to touch base with you,” Bardella wrote. I was shocked by his note—and also intrigued. For the previous three years, Bannon had tried to destroy my professional reputation. During this time I was researching a biography of the late Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. A legendary paranoiac, Ailes waged an elaborate campaign to discredit my book that included having me followed by private detectives and commissioning a 400-page dossier about my life. Bannon and Breitbart played a crucial role in the effort. He worked out of Fox News headquarters strategizing with Ailes about how to attack my book. Breitbart published many thousands of words about me, at turns calling me a “Soros-backed attack dog,” “harasser,” “stalker,” and “Jayson Blair on steroids,” a reference to the former New York Times fabulist. After one Breitbart article, my wife and I received a threatening phone call at home. We called the police.
But they meet -- and it's like a romance novel in which the heroine falls head over heels for exactly the kind of guy she thinks she hates:
A few days after Bardella e-mailed, I met Bannon for lunch at the Bryant Park Grill in Midtown Manhattan. I found him at an outdoor table, wearing an untucked shirt and cargo shorts. His hair was a tangled nest of platinum gray and it looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. If I didn’t know him I’d have thought he just rolled off a bus at the Port Authority. Bannon shook my hand graciously. He told me he enjoyed my book on Ailes. What about all the hit pieces he published? “Ha! Those were love taps, dude. Just business.” We proceeded to have a highly entertaining lunch swapping media and political gossip.

As much as I wanted to loathe Bannon—the Breitbart attacks were genuinely terrifying—I found myself liking him. He was strange and charismatic and slightly unhinged, and he possessed a sophisticated and encyclopedic knowledge of the modern political-media landscape. He personally knew the players, from the on-air talent and programming executives to the candidates and billionaire donors. And he was a gifted talker. He exaggerated but didn’t quite lie (at least most of the time). And during conversations he fired off laser-accurate descriptions of famous people that would make the best insult comics proud. In that way, he was like another New York blowhard: Trump.
Christ, it doesn't take much to impress insider journalists. He understand the political-media landscape? He knows the players? He can sling the bull and tell a joke? Dude, he's affiliated with people who threatened you and your wife with physical harm. What's your problem?

Sherman's problem is that he wants good copy -- and, presumably, continued access. He got the former, largely because Bannon is either the world's most caffeinated man (his libations of choice are Red Bull, multiple cups of coffee, Coke, and "Pocari Sweat, a popular Japanese energy drink") or because, well...

Bannon's speed-rants seem to persuade Sherman that his versions of events are true. For instance, he was totally planning to quit his White House job, and it's just an unfortunate coincidence that he was fired:
By this point it was Bannon who was on the way out. In late July, Trump replaced Priebus with John Kelly and gave the retired four-star Marine general a stated mandate to bring the warring West Wing factions to heel. Among Kelly’s first orders of business was firing communications director Anthony Scaramucci. Another, according to White House officials: telling Bannon he needed to go. Bannon told me he always planned to leave by the one-year anniversary of joining Trump’s campaign, and he told Kelly on August 7 he wanted to resign.

Whatever the case, Bannon said he knew Trump might try to control the narrative of his departure, so he told Kelly not to tell Trump. But later that night, Bannon said Trump called him after learning of the decision from White House lawyer John Dowd. Bannon said he told Trump he wanted to attack his G.O.P. detractors from the outside. “I said the establishment is trying to nullify your election,” he recalls. “Forget the Democrats. We got our own thing with the three committees” investigating Russia collusion. According to Bannon, Trump was reluctant at first to let him leave. And the threat of Bannon turning Breitbart loose on Trump and his family loomed. “He was very nervous about it,” Bannon said. “He just fuckin’ knows I’m a junkyard dog, and I was pissed at the time.” Bannon said Trump told him he needed to think about it....

On Thursday, August 17, ... The American Prospect published a remarkable score-settling interview Bannon had given to its editor Robert Kuttner. The fact that Bannon spoke to a magazine aligned with the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party got people’s attention. But what likely got Bannon fired were his comments that there was no military solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis. The remark sent the stock market tanking. If Trump understands one thing, it’s money, and he approved Bannon’s dismissal.
Oh, but Bannon got "a hero's welcome" when he arrived at Breitbart HQ the next day, Sherman tells us. ("'I don’t think Trump understands how dangerous Steve is. He just runs in and conquers shit, like Charlemagne,' a Breitbart journalist told me at the time.") Bannon might run for Trump's job in 2020 if Trump doesn't. ("In October, Bannon called an adviser and said he would consider running for president if Trump doesn’t run for re-election in 2020. Which Bannon has told people is a realistic possibility.") And Bannon is a true champion of the working man:
Bannon’s blue-collar upbringing and conservative Catholic faith undergird his populist ideas.... Cutting immigration and erecting trade barriers will help people of color by tightening the labor market, thereby raising wages. In the White House, he argued to increase tax rates on the wealthy and has problems with the G.O.P. tax plan (although he ultimately supports it). Bannon also argued to end the country’s decades-long entanglement in Afghanistan and spend the money at home. “You could rebuild America! Do you understand what Baltimore and St. Louis and these places would look like?” ...

Raheem Kassam, a former adviser to Nigel Farage who now edits Breitbart London and travels in Bannon’s entourage, told me, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bannon and Bernie campaigning together in a couple years.”
That's a bridge too far even for the otherwise credulous Sherman -- but for the wrong reason:
There’s not much evidence that that notion is more than a fantasy. Not only because of Bannon’s pariah status on the left, but also because it’s difficult to reconcile Bannon’s homilies about helping minorities with a worldview that America is a Western European, Judeo-Christian culture that must close its borders and build a wall at a time when the immigrants are brown-skinned people.
That's not the primary reason it's a fantasy. It's a fantasy because Bannon has done nothing, either as a Breitbart editor or as a Trump adviser, to attack the pro-plutocrat policies of the Republican Party. If he'd wanted to, he could have quit the White House when it became obvious that there'd be no infrastructure plan in the first year, and no other real economic help for the working class. As the top man at Breitbart, he could have attacked the tax bill as a giveaway to the elites he claims he despises.

But he'll never do that, because he's a fraud. But he's an entertaining fraud, so Sherman doesn't care.


BuzzFeed reports:
The political network affiliated with billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch will launch a multimillion-dollar campaign to sell the just-passed GOP tax plan to voters ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
Wow! The public hates the tax plan now, but an expensive propaganda campaign is sure to turn popular opinion around -- isn't it?

I don't think so, because the Kochs have been spending like this all year, and to what effect?
The network, which is funded by hundreds of wealthy GOP donors, has already spent more than $20 million this year on pushing the bill....

Already this year, Koch network officials say they have hosted more than 100 events across 36 states on the new tax policy, knocked on more than 33,000 doors, reached nearly 2 million activists, and spent about $8 million on ad spending.
And as The Washington Post noted yesterday:
The 45committee, a pro-Trump conservative nonprofit group that is primarily funded by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and the family of TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, has spent about $15 million promoting a tax bill over the past few months.
The result of all that spending? As CNN noted on Tuesday,
Opposition to the bill has grown 10 points since early November, and 55% now oppose it. Just 33% say they favor the GOP's proposals to reform the nation's tax code.
I'd fear expensive future campaigns to shape public opinion on the tax bill if expensive past campaigns had accomplished anything for the GOP. They haven't.

But will the bill gain in popularity on its own? John Judis, writing for Talking Points Memo, warns us that it might:
The tax bill does give immediate benefits to the middle and lower classes. These include the increase in the child credit and standard deduction and lower rates.

... during the campaign next year, the Republicans will not be at a huge, or perhaps even a significant, disadvantage because they passed this bill. If the economy is still perking, they might even be able to turn the bill into a net political plus. That doesn’t mean they won’t be in trouble in 2018, but it does mean that they won’t be in trouble because of this bill.
But I think Jonathan Chait is closer to the mark:
... public opinion does not usually follow the dollars and cents so closely. In 2009, Democrats passed a tax cut that, while smaller in total size, gave most Americans a far bigger tax reduction than the Trump tax cuts would. A poll in February 2010 found just 12 percent of the public believed they had gotten a tax cut, versus twice as many who thought they had gotten a tax hike, and more than half who believed they had seen no change. Another poll in November of that year yielded even more grim results. Only 9 percent said they received a tax cut, while 39 percent reported a tax increase. Keep in mind, there had been no tax increases on anybody.
Chait also notes this quote from a veteran Democratic pollster:

That has the ring of truth. I just don't believe that most ordinary Americans express jubilation at increases in take-home pay so small that they can easily be eaten by one unexpected expense.

Apart from committed Trump/GOP voters, who are already inclined to see every Republican accomplishment in the best possible light, I think this tax bill will have very little positive impact on voter sentiment in 2018. I worry that it will help Republicans by significantly increasing plutocrats' contributions to them, but I don't think it will directly impress voters.

And when I'm reading stories like this...
The US is preparing plans to deliver a “bloody nose” attack against North Korea to knock out its nuclear weapons program.

The White House has “dramatically” ramped up its military plans amid fears that diplomacy won’t thwart North Korean despot Kim Jong Un from making good on his threats, sources told the UK’s Telegraph.
... I conclude that taxes might be the least of our concerns next November, if we survive.