On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
March 19, 2018

Odd Couple. The pattern of Russian lying, in this case to deny any involvement in the murder of a former Russian double agent in Britain, sounds faintly familiar. The British government has identified the weapon as a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, a compound made only in Russia. On Sunday, Putin called the claim “total rubbish, drivel, and nonsense.” (They don’t edit him for redundancy.) Putin went on to insist that Russia had destroyed all of its chemical weapons, as required by international treaty, more than two decades ago.

Piling on, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the BBC that if Britain had indeed identified Novichok, then the Brits must have stockpiled chemical weapons themselves, and one could have gotten loose. Another Russian diplomat, Alexander Shulgin, ambassador to the Netherlands, went further, denying that such a compound even existed: “There has never been any program under the group name Novichok in the Russian Federation,” he said.

And Russia’s ambassador to Britain took that denial even further. Alexander Yakovenko suggested that maybe the whole story was British fabrication to distract attention from Brexit. “Nobody even saw the pictures of these people in the hospital,” he said.

Meanwhile, back in Missouri, Donald Trump boasted, at a fundraiser, that he had simply made up his claims of a Canadian trade surplus that he used to berate Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I said ‘Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’”

In terms of brazen lying, it’s hard to say who wins the fabrication derby—Putin or Trump. It’s one more form of affinity between the dictator and the would-be dictator.

For now, Trump can only envy Putin. Trump doesn’t get to use toxins to assassinate enemies, though his impact on American democracy has been toxic.

Putin, who just won “re-election” in a landslide, destroyed his opposition first. Poor Trump still has to contend with elections, and maybe with impeachment.

Kuttner
March 16, 2018

Odd Couple. The pattern of Russian lying, in this case to deny any involvement in the murder of a former Russian double agent in Britain, sounds faintly familiar. The British government has identified the weapon as a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, a compound made only in Russia. On Sunday, Putin called the claim “total rubbish, drivel, and nonsense.” (They don’t edit him for redundancy.) Putin went on to insist that Russia had destroyed all of its chemical weapons, as required by international treaty, more than two decades ago.

Piling on, Russia’s ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told the BBC that if Britain had indeed identified Novichok, then the Brits must have stockpiled chemical weapons themselves, and one could have gotten loose. Another Russian diplomat, Alexander Shulgin, ambassador to the Netherlands, went further, denying that such a compound even existed: “There has never been any program under the group name Novichok in the Russian Federation,” he said.

And Russia’s ambassador to Britain took that denial even further. Alexander Yakovenko suggested that maybe the whole story was British fabrication to distract attention from Brexit. “Nobody even saw the pictures of these people in the hospital,” he said.

Meanwhile, back in Missouri, Donald Trump boasted, at a fundraiser, that he had simply made up his claims of a Canadian trade surplus that he used to berate Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “I said ‘Justin, you do.’ I didn’t even know. … I had no idea. I just said, ‘You’re wrong.’”

In terms of brazen lying, it’s hard to say who wins the fabrication derby—Putin or Trump. It’s one more form of affinity between the dictator and the would-be dictator.

For now, Trump can only envy Putin. Trump doesn’t get to use toxins to assassinate enemies, though his impact on American democracy has been toxic.

Putin, who just won “re-election” in a landslide, destroyed his opposition first. Poor Trump still has to contend with elections, and maybe with impeachment.

Kuttner
March 16, 2018

How the Press Drinks the Kool-Aid—and Passes It On to You. It’s maddening how the mainstream press absorbs and replays ruling ideology as fact. You have to be paying attention, or you don’t see it.

Exhibit A is a seemingly neutral New York Times reporting piece on challenges facing Angela Merkel in her new term. The title is a little suspicious: “As Merkel Begins New Term, Compromises Could Pose Threat.”

What fatal compromises? The writer, Jack Ewing, goes on to warn—remember, this is a news piece, not an op-ed—“She had to bend to demands from her party’s junior coalition partner, and agree to roll back deregulation that, since 2005, has unleashed the country’s economy.”

That junior partner would be the Social Democrats. What dangerous policies are they demanding that reporter Ewing finds so alarming? Policies that would “make it easier for workers at small firms to organize, greater increases in pensions, and put limits on companies’ use of temporary workers.” Oh, the horror of it!

Ewing states as fact that these policies would depress growth and raise unemployment. But of course that is one side of a highly charged ideological argument, not fact. The evidence suggests that Germany’s rare slump early in this century was the result of the costs of absorbing the integration of the former East Germany and the Bundesbank’s perverse response of hiking interest rates, not the result of excessive wages or worker protections.

Ewing’s piece reads as if it were spoon-fed by Germany’s now mercifully departed ultra-austerity finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. But this nonsense is published as straight news.

Does the Times still have editors? Or do they drink the same Kool-Aid?

Want another one? The Wall Street Journal reports, in a straight news story, that Toys R Us plans to close all of its U.S. stores. The story gives the usual explanations—competition from Amazon and from Walmart, and so on.

You have to read down to the 23rd paragraph, the last one in the piece, to learn the real prime reason for the collapse. Private equity company owners of the toy chain, Bain Capital and KKR, joined by Vornado Realty Trust, loaded up the chain with $6.6 billion in debt.

The piece doesn’t point out that private equity’s strategy is to use that borrowed money to extract windfall returns, stick the company with payments on the debt, and then let it collapse.

Commercial: These media lapses are why we need the Prospect

Meyerson
March 15, 2018

Now that Rand Paul has announced he won’t vote to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state or Gina Haspel as CIA director, and given John McCain’s prolonged absence from the Senate due to his illness (and his skepticism about Haspel’s nomination due to his longstanding opposition to torture), President Trump’s nominees will need at least some Democratic support to win confirmation. In the case of Pompeo, that shouldn’t be a problem. Haspel, due to her supervision of a secret CIA facility that engaged in waterboarding and possibly other forms of torture as well, will have a tougher time getting confirmed.

Leading Democrats, including Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who serves on the Intelligence Committee, and Representative Jerry Nadler of New York, who’s the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have already said that Haspel’s oversight of torture operations should disqualify her from heading the CIA.

Which brings us to the continually curious case of California’s Dianne Feinstein, who, according to a Washington Post story on Wednesday, “appeared to defend” Haspel. “She has been a good deputy director,” Feinstein told the Post, going on to note that the torture that took place on Haspel’s watch was not yet specifically illegal. (Subsequent legislation by McCain, backed by Feinstein, did outlaw torture.)

Hmmm. Talk about your soft bigotry of low expectations! You might think that precisely because torture wasn’t yet illegal, Haspel had the option of exercising her judgment in deciding whether to allow such procedures to go forward. You might think her decision would be a reasonable basis for senators’ confirmation votes.

Apparently, that’s not how Feinstein operates. In the time-honored tradition of the Senate, she likes to reward public figures who, if only for a moment, exhibit a rudimentary reasonableness or confirm her expectations for how the Washington establishment should operate. That the Washington establishment has long been full of dangerous loons, and is fuller now than ever before, is a fact she seems unable to grasp. Having expressed the hope that Trump would grow into his job, she effused at Trump’s momentary support for more gun control, which, of course, he rescinded a couple days later. Haspel appears to pass muster with her for functioning efficiently as the CIA’s deputy director.

As she’s done before, in her votes to authorize the Iraq War and support George W. Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthy, Feinstein appears to be positioning herself to cast a vote likely to appall most of her fellow Democrats.

This time around, however, she has a Democratic challenger—California Senate President Kevin De Leon—who on this and other issues not only parts company with Feinstein, but is closer to the moral sense of most Californians. De Leon has an uphill battle, but Feinstein’s apparently irrepressible instinct to affirm the establishment, no matter how deranged it may be, gives him a fighting chance.

Kuttner
March 14, 2018

Tom Friedman and the Reality Club. It was only a matter of time before reality hit Tom Friedman over the head. Or did it? After a long, long delay—decades actually—Friedman’s Wednesday column in the Times concedes that he might have been wrong about China moving to join the ranks of market democracies.

His title is, “Some Things Are Right Even If Trump Believes Them.” Friedman writes:

For those of us who believe in free trade—and that China and America can both thrive at the same time—but who are convinced that China hasn’t been playing fair and don’t trust Trump to fix it, this is a critical problem to think through.

Well, yes it is, and welcome to the club. Friedman concedes that China is responsible for the loss of large numbers of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and that China doesn’t play fair. He interviews the usual suspects: “We assumed that China would ‘reform and open’ after it joined the WTO, said James McGregor, a longtime China trade expert. Instead, China ‘reformed and closed.’”

Imagine that. Better late than never, I suppose. But what should we do, Tom?

“So what would a smart American president do? First, he’d sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord.”

Argggh!

Meyerson
March 13, 2018

The business press is agog over President Trump’s decision to stop the proposed purchase of computer chip manufacturer Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom in the name of national security. Critics have termed the decision radical, and highlighted two ways in which it departs from the precedents set by the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). First, the president, basing his action on CFIUS’s letter of last week, stopped the deal before the tender offer was actually made. Second, the nationality of the purchaser—Singapore (though Broadcom had announced it would soon reconstitute itself as a U.S. company)—is not a foreign rival that can threaten national security. “If it’s a Chinese investor, the bar is going to be high,” one former member of the National Security Council told The Washington Post. “A Singaporean investor you would not normally have considered a high risk.”

The coverage, however, misses the genuine radicalism underpinning CFIUS’s fears about the merger. As I wrote last week, what tipped the scales against Broadcom was that it underinvests in its properties, preferring instead to mine its companies for profits at the expense of investment. The agency’s fear was that reducing Qualcomm’s investments in security-related technology like 5G communications capabilities would enable a Chinese high-tech company, Huawei, whose close ties to the Chinese military CFIUS has long documented, to steal a march on the U.S.

And CFIUS didn’t stop there. The problem with Broadcom, it proclaimed, was that it followed the model of private equity firms, hollowing out their companies to extract profit. As the agency’s letter said, “Broadcom’s statements indicate that it is looking to take a ‘private-equity’-style direction if it acquires Qualcomm, which means reducing long-term investment, such as R&D, and focusing on short-term profitability.”

In short, CFIUS just indicted a common Wall Street practice and numerous Wall Street practitioners for weakening the American economy. The radicalism of CFIUS’s warning on the proposed purchase is precisely its economic empiricism: This is what private equity generally does, CFIUS has declared. There’s no reason to believe for so much as a nanosecond that Trump understands this basis for CFIUS’s warning, but that’s no reason why the business press should overlook it, too.

Kuttner
March 12, 2018

Spinning the Pennsylvania House Race. The special election to fill a vacant House seat is Tuesday, and polls show the race in a dead heat. A loss, or even a near-miss would be devastating to Republicans, since Trump carried the longtime GOP seat by about 20 points.

A Democratic pickup would portend major Democratic gains November. The district, in greater Pittsburgh, is exactly the kind of territory where blue-collar voters deserted Democrats in droves—and are now coming back.

Democrat Conor Lamb is a social conservative—he defends gun rights and opposes abortion. He makes the generational argument that Democrats need a new face as House minority leader. But on pocketbook issues he’s a progressive.

Lamb supports Trump’s tariff orders on steel and aluminum—and was calling for defense of American industry long before Trump was. Lamb has astutely directed his fire against House Speaker Paul Ryan, no friend of labor, since this election is not about Trump, but about which party will control the House.

This has partly bulletproofed him against right-wing attacks, but has not prevented his lackluster Republican opponent from trying to paint Lamb as a Pelosi clone in ads. Right-wing columnists, taking the opposite tack, are already spinning an anticipated loss by Republican state Representative Rick Saccone as the result of Lamb not being a true Democrat. 

This is of course nonsense. He’s had resounding support from the labor movement, and is a longtime friend of unions, unlike his Republican opponent, who supports union-busting. The lackluster Saccone is another element of Republican spin.

If Lamb wins, or even comes close, this is a calamity for Republicans—and a sign that the blue wave is still building. In some regions of the country, Democrats will need to make their peace with social conservatives. Progressives will still dominate a new Democratic House. 

Kuttner
March 9, 2018

Spare Us the Ghosts of Smoot and Hawley! One of the enduring myths of American economic history is that the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 deepened the Great Depression. Here’s James B. Stewart in Friday’s New York Times.

After Smoot-Hawley was passed, Stewart solemnly warns, other nations retaliated and exports “plunged 61 percent from 1929 to 1933. … [T]he ensuing trade war exacerbated and prolonged the hardships of the Great Depression.”

The only problem with this received wisdom is that it has been thoroughly debunked by the respected dean of trade historians, Alfred E. Eckes Jr. Professor Eckes did a deep dive into what Smoot-Hawley actually did, and found that it exempted more products than it covered. And the trade in duty-free products declined just as much as the ones subject to the tariff. Eckes wrote, “Except under the Underwood schedules during World War I, no tariff before or after Smoot-Hawley permitted such a large percentage of U.S. imports, by value, to enter duty-free.”

Why did trade decline generally, independent of what was covered by tariffs? Because the world was falling into a Great Depression, and commerce always collapses in a depression. The tariff was a very minor, bit player in this story.

FDR persuaded Congress to give him authority to negotiate reciprocal cuts in tariffs in 1934, but the Great Depression still had six more years to run—because purchasing power had collapsed. And in a salutary retreat from the globalism of that era, FDR took America off the gold standard, the better to mount a domestic recovery program.

That doesn’t mean that higher tariffs are always good. As I’ve written, Trump’s strategic trade policy should have been targeted against the real predator of the story, China.

But it’s well past time to retire the myth that Smoot-Hawley was a major factor in the Great Depression. 

Meyerson
March 8, 2018

The stunning success of the West Virginia teachers’ strike—winning a 5 percent raise not only for themselves but for all the state’s public employees—suggests that in labor relations, as in everything else, the nation is moving, with accelerating speed, in opposite directions. As the five Republican justices on the Supreme Court are poised to weaken public-sector unions with their forthcoming decision in the Janus case, a state full of public schoolteachers with no legal right to collective bargaining have just won an amazing victory.

This requires some explanation. I’ll try.

To begin: While unions may be smaller and weaker than at any time since the pre-New Deal days, public support for unions is high and growing: In the latest Pew and Gallup polls, unions have approval ratings of 60 and 61 percent, respectively. Among millennials, a generation whose experience of the American economy has been preponderantly dismal, the approval rating for unions exceeds 70 percent. This does not mean millennials have had positive experiences with unions. With union membership at 11 percent, and only 6.5 percent in the private sector, most millennials have had no experience with unions at all. However, as their grandparents and great-grandparents realized in the 1930s, they have figured out that unless workers gain more power, the inequality and unfairness baked into the economy will only grow worse—a belief that many of their elders share. West Virginia may have gone heavily for Trump, but popular support for the teachers there was such that the Republican governor and legislature felt compelled to grant them their raise.

Also working in the teachers’ favor were the digital channels of communication and mobilization that the unions and their supporters were able to create on Facebook pages and the like. A similar process is unfolding in Oklahoma, where unions are scarcely to be found, but where a Facebook page that teachers have used to organize themselves for a possible strike now has 40,000 followers. As the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, digital communications make mobilization—a task that unions were once needed to perform among workers—much easier. Tufekci, who joined the occupiers in Zuccotti Park and in the great squares of Cairo and Istanbul, also noted that none of those occupations had sufficient structure to reach decisions or negotiate with the authorities. The West Virginia teachers had enough structure, however—their unions, even without de jure bargaining rights—so that they were able to reach a deal with the state, and the Oklahoma teachers may be in that sweet spot as well.

While unions as institutions are weak, public action on behalf of workers appears strong enough to win victories for those workers in the legislative process, as the Fight for 15 has demonstrated. Actual organizing of private-sector workers, however, remains all but impossible under the constraints of labor law, so until that public pro-union sentiment becomes so strong that it forces a wholesale rewriting of labor law, the institutional strength of labor isn’t likely to grow.

Meanwhile, back at the Court, the Republican justices look to be following the general pattern of Republican elected officials. In decades past, the “right-to-work” laws designed to cripple unions were confined to the anti-union South and Southwest, but in the past decade, Midwestern Republicans have moved to adopt “right-to-work” laws, too, in such former union strongholds as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. This transformation, I’d argue, is of a piece with the Republican campaigns to suppress voting, stop immigration, and enact increasingly extreme legislation. At the root of all these actions is the GOP leaders’ awareness that the nation’s growing racial diversity and millennials’ left-leaning politics give them just a few short years to enact legislation or deliver court rulings that can delay or derail their political eclipse—like weakening the very unions that do the best job of helping bring minorities and millennials to the polls.

All of which is why 2018 looks to be shaping up as a year of both dejection and elation, or, more precisely, of fear (chiefly among Republicans) and rage (chiefly among everyone else).

Kuttner
March 7, 2018

How We All Pay For Trump’s Tax Cuts. Sure as night follows day, Republicans rediscover the temporarily suppressed horror of deficits once the ink is dry on tax giveaways to rich. And the cure, of course, is cutting what remains of social outlays.

The Republican tax bill increased the ten-year deficit by well over a trillion dollars. Now comes Martin Feldstein, Harvard eminence and former chair of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers, writing in The Wall Street Journal to sound the alarm.

But in a splendid display of selective myopia, Feldstein places primary blame neither on the tax giveaway (the corporate rate cuts, he writes, “will spur productivity and raise real wages. They are not the main driver of the debt problem.”) nor on Trump’s increased military spending (“which will contribute relatively little to the increased debt”). Actually, only if you think $800 billion over ten years is “relatively little.”

So what’s driving the debt, according to Feldstein? That would be Social Security and Medicare, of course. The good professor helpfully suggests reforms, namely cuts.

A cynic might observe that Republicans have been playing these games since Reagan: 1) increase deficits with tax cuts and military build-ups; 2) blame social spending; 3) execute cuts.

If Democrats can’t explain this to the voters come November and turn it into political pay dirt, shame on them.

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