Category Archives: Blog Items

1

What’s the difference between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia? One’s a powerful country whose ruler has named a member of the next generation in his own family Crown Prince with control over virtually all policy. The other’s just …

7 Are You Zucked?

Here’s an email I recently got from a currently unemployed American techie (who’s also a longtime kf reader):

I am having difficulty competing with H-1b visaholders.  I thought it would be an easy sell.  I would say, “I am willing to work for as little as them, plus I speak English, and went to graduate school, and made good grades, and have done exactly that job well for decades.”

Employers don’t care.  You see, when they say to Americans, “You must routinely work evenings and weekends and holidays and vacations and all-nighters for free,” the Americans look for another job.  When employers say that to H-1b visaholders, they can add, “Oh, and it’s a crime for you to work in America for anyone except me, and if you get fired you are immediately deported back to Bangladesh, per capita annual income $800.  If you keep working at this awful job, by contrast, your whole family may move here for family reunification.”

And we worry why more Americans aren’t motivated to get STEM degrees? … The H-1B program (at about 100,000 visas a year) may look small, but it seems to have a huge impact on the tech industry (why so many Silicon CEOs care so much about it) ….

10 The Most Important Chart

A lot of talk about America’s declining “social capital.” Sen. Mike Lee has a big report out:

There is a sense that our social fabric has seen better days. Leading thinkers have issued warnings that we are increasingly ‘bowling alone,’ ‘coming apart,’ and inhabiting a ‘fractured republic.’ At the heart of those warnings is a view that what happens in the middle layers of our society is vital to sustaining a free, prosperous, democratic, and pluralistic country.

Lee’s report focuses on a decline in “associational life” — marriage, church membership, volunteering, etc. — and blames prosperity: “[R]ising affluence has made associational life less necessary for purposes of gaining material benefits …”

True enough. But I’d also blame this chart, which I’ve come to think is the most important chart around when it comes to explaining contemporary politics, including Trump:

It’s not just that wages for many have been stagnant. It’s that their increase or decrease has taken on a vicious meritocratic bias. Well-educated Americans are still doing well. Uneducated Americans are actually doing worse — they’re dropping out of the bottom of the pack.

It’s hard to see how traditional American-style social equality — everyone’s equal, not only in the eyes of God or before the law but in the eyes of each other — can survive many more decades of this chart. It’s one thing if the rich get richer — I’d argue there isn’t a hard, Marxist connection between income tables and a sense of social superiority. (Would you let any of these guys butt in front of you in line?) It’s another if a whole group of Americans — increasingly identifiable by dress, appearance and language — keeps getting tossed into the economic trashcan. *** I’ve had more than one conversation out here in West Los Angeles in which the topic of heartland working-class decline comes up and the explicit response from one of my friends is, “Fuck ’em.” (The only-sometimes-explicit rest of the response is “… if they’re too stupid to move or go to school.”)

Social equality isn’t “community” or “social capital.” You could have a perfectly socially equal society of monads who never talked to each other but merely tipped their hats out of respect when they passed on the street. But in a nation where community institutions — schools, churches, highways, ball games — are built on an egalitarian basis, the introduction of vicious class divisions isn’t going to help. Who wants to associate with a bunch of losers whose children will only drag down your kids’ SAT scores (and push them onto a lower meritocratic track)?

More simply: If, as Robert Putnam suggests, ethnic divisions cause a decline in social trust, the meritocratic split is yet another division that has to be overcome. Maybe a bigger division. It’s probably easier for ethnic Chinese software developers to associate with Caucasian software developers (I see it every day in my neighborhood) than for Caucasian software developers to associate with Caucasian car wash attendants.

True, each educational class might develop its own associational life, the way ethnic groups traditionally developed their own groups (Knights of Columbus, etc.). But it might take a long time. It’s also the stuff of neo-feudal dystopias. (When will the Betas and Zetas revolt?)

Which is another way of saying that community and “social capital” aren’t everything.

UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru suggests that one reason the wages of “less than high school” are declining in the chart is that there are fewer of them.

It was much more common to be a high-school dropout in 1973 than in 2005. We would expect the later group of high-school dropouts, a more distinctive part of the population, to have a worse relative economic standing …

In other words, “high school dropouts” used to be a mixed bag of people. But now the more able citizens almost always get degrees, while the less able drop out and become … well, a “more distinctive part of the population.” Maybe a part that always could only earn low wages. The more “less than high school” group is composed exclusively of these people, the lower its average wage, even if nobody has actually gone downhill.

Good point. A process like this might indeed be at work. But note this is the very sorting (into classes marked by income and ability) that itself eats away at our sense of equality. You used to be able to look at someone earning low wages and not think that they were someone the system has determined to be a loser. Now you can. The entire income distribution has been given a toxic, divisive cast. The fairer the system, the more toxic.

Even if the chart reflected only this sorting process, rather than a long-term decline of wages at the bottom, it would be bad for social equality (and, I’d argue, for “social capital”). It almost certainly reflects a mix of both phenomena. But it’s bad news either way.

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*** — That’s why I’m obsessed with immigration, which may explain a third of “the recent decline in the relative wages of less-educated native workers.”  [See also.] It’s the easiest lever we have to pull (easier than reversing trade patterns, or halting automation). Controlling competition from cheap imported labor isn’t a full solution, but in itself it could cause a surge in unskilled wages — something that may already be happening.

2 Shutdowns: A GOP Defeat Machine

Have Republicans won any shutdown confrontation since Newt Gingrich lost to Bill Clinton in the winter of 95-6? I can’t think of one.  Certainly the Democrats are gloating over the latest shutdown deal. Yes, they’re playing to their frustrated base, but unless Trump pulled off some impressive Kabuki regarding funding for his wall, it sure looks like they have some justification for claiming to have bested the president.

But is it possible something bigger has also been revealed, namely that Republicans are simply incapable of winning a shutdown fight for the forseeable future — won’t happen, shouldn’t expect it to happen — and that this is a new (and asymmetric) feature in our government’s structure, as much a change as the partial abolition of the filibuster or the potential end of gerrymandering?

At least four factors contribute to this phenomenon: 1) Memory of the Clinton-Gingrich showdown. Gingrich attempted to effect vast budget changes (including raising Medicare premiums) from the House Speakership. But, in what may have been the most successful episode of gaslighting in the century, he was provoked into a tantrum when asked to use the rear door of Air Force One–and partly as a result got blamed for the shutdown. The episode marked the turnaround of Clinton’s presidency, and Democrats aren’t going to give up that precious template soon. 2) The press is on the Democrats’ side. Why? Because it is. Any shutdown impact — park rangers furloughed, etc. — will be played up and subtly twisted against GOPs.  3) You’d think GOPs would have built-in leverage over Democrats, who are the party of government after all. They should most want it to stay open. But that’s not how the PR war has been playing out.  When the state closes its doors — well, isn’t that what the [mean] Republicans want?  Quite apart from press bias, modern ideological Republicans consistently underestimate how much government the voters — including Trump voters —  prefer. Shutdowns tend to highlight this very real gap. Voters decide they’d just as soon keep Leviathan going; 4) Republicans are split between the Freedom Caucusers and the moderates — in a way Dems are not. This may change, but I don’t see the Sandersites actually shutting down the government because a budget funds Obamacare rather than Medicare-for-all, at least not anytime soon.

Note that these factors apply even when Republicans don’t control all the branches of government and therefore might not be expected to shoulder all the blame. **  They managed to lose in 1996 and 2013 despite divided government.

It’s hard to believe now that Republicans actually scheduled this shutdown back in December, thinking it would give them leverage. Who were they kidding? They need to find some other way to pass legislation when they don’t have 60 votes in the Senate. Aren’t there other must-pass bills? If  government-wide funding confrontations are “the single best opportunity to make conservative policy,” conservatives are in trouble.**

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** — You could even see President Minority Leader Schumer routinely use the shutdown threat to effectively repeal victories conservatives win in the ordinary course of legislative business — e.g. ‘You know that mandatory welfare work program you passed? Well we’re shutting down the government unless it gets unfunded.’

5 Trump’s Border Wall Weirdness: 3 Theories

[This is derived from the discussion on today’s “To the Point” with Warren Olney.]

President Trump picked a fight by trying to get explicit funding for his border wall in the current shutdown spending-bill negotiations with Congress. Now he’s backed off his demand. There seem to be at least three possible explanations for this behavior:

1) Naivete: In this theory, Trump actually thought he could force Democrats to cough up the money, in part by dangling the prospect of Obamacare subsidies (now hung up in the courts). Maybe Trump wanted a big achievement for his first 100 days. Maybe he was worried his base could bail on him. Why naive: This was a very unfavorable circumstance in which to try to fund The Wall. Democrats are desperate for an issue that can unite them against Trump (while appealing to their base).  Righteously opposing the Wall fits the bill. If they held out (as they have) Republicans would get blamed for any resulting shutdown — as they’ve been every time it’s happened, ever since Bill Clinton bested Newt Gingrich in 1996. The MSM would certainly blame Trump. Policy arguments for the wall would be inevitably mixed up with, and obscured by, extraneous arguments over the shutdown.

2) Mildly cynical: Trump knew he’d have to cave this round, but figured the base would give him an “‘A’ for effort.” Problem: Why pick a fight only to retreat? The base is going to like that? Trump’s supposed to be the strong one. Plus, even if he says he’ll seek funding later, the Trump-hostile press will now instinctively portray it as another defeat — ‘after his failed attempt to repeal Obamacare,’ etc.. You know the drill.

3) Super cynical: Trump knew he’d have to cave but actually wanted to use the defeat to wriggle out of his border wall promise entirely, redefining “wall” down to mean merely “border security” — e.g., drones, sensors better flashlights for the border patrol, whatever. (Anything but a wall!) Certainly the usual-suspect GOP proponents of amnesty and less-restricted immigration –like Senators Tillis and Graham — have  jumped at this opportunity. Here’s Graham:

“I think [the wall] has become symbolic for better border security. So it’s a code word for better border security.”

Nice try.  Problem: Even if Trump intended to redefine “wall,” he publicly abandoned the idea in a tweet this morning:

Don’t let the fake media tell you that I have changed my position on the WALL. It will get built and help stop drugs, human trafficking etc.

Which? I tend to buy #1 — they misread their leverage — maybe with a bit of #3 in the mix from traditionally anti-restrictionist players like Ryan and Priebus.  Troubling! But make your own call.

The crazy part is, Trump doesn’t need explicit funding from Congress now to start his Wall project. He already has plenty of statutory authority and surely could cobble together start-up funds within the Department of Homeland Security. Eventually he needs some Congressional approval, but not right now. The skirmish seems to be a self-inflicted loss. But not one that prevents Trump from building the wall. And, as David Drucker points out, he caved quickly enough to avoid major damage. [Update: Maybe not. The base has noticed. Drucker’s now alluding to longer term consequences. ]

3 You want a Principle of Trumpism? Here’s one …

Lawrence Summers, arguing recently against Bill Gates’ proposed tax on robots, makes a point familiar to economists [emphasis added]:

[W]hy tax in ways that reduce the size of the pie rather than ways that assure that the larger pie is well-distributed? Imagine that 50 people can produce robots who will do the work of 100. A sufficiently high tax on robots would prevent them from being produced. Surely it would be better for society to instead enjoy the extra output and establish suitable taxes and transfers to protect displaced workers. It is hard to see why shrinking the pie, rather than enlarging it as much as possible and then redistributing, is the right way forward.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. …

None of this is to minimize the problem of job destruction and rising inequality … Rather, it is to suggest that staving off progress is a poor strategy for helping less fortunate workers. … There are many better approaches. Governments will, however, have to concern themselves with problems of structural joblessness. They likely will need to take a more explicit role in ensuring full employment than has been the practice in the United States. Among other things, this will mean major reforms of education and retraining systems, consideration of targeted wage subsidies for groups with particularly severe employment problems, major investments in infrastructure and, possibly, direct public employment programs.

Grow the pie, use part of that growth to compensate the “losers”– this idea, Summers might have added, is central to arguments for more wage-lowering immigration as well as for more trade and more technology. But what if we are terrible at compensating the losers — especially at compensating them without robbing them of dignity and self-respect? What, in our long record of “education and retraining” or “trade adjustment assistance” suggests these policies will ever do enough for the “losers” to make them whole? Just putting them on the dole — sorry, “transfer payments” — is inherently degrading, even when done under cover of “disability.”  Retraining? Not everyone is easily retrained.**  Even if many are, the resulting distribution of income will have a nasty meritocratic bite (smart people up, stupid people down) that those lower on the ladder may not appreciate.***

If there are principles of “Trumpism,” surely recognition of this reality is one good candidate. Maybe it’s not worth growing the pie “as much as possible” — through trade deals, immigration, automation — if that leaves losers who can only be compensated in theory, but not in practice. That doesn’t mean never embracing trade, technology, or international movement of people. It does mean we should make those decisions differently, and less easily, especially when the “losers” are going to be Americans who are already at the bottom.

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** — That’s likely to be especially true of people performing physical labor who are now asked to perform mental labor.

*** — Summers goes beyond the orthodox loser-compensation kit when he proposes “direct public employment” — a good idea, and a Trumpish idea. But ultimately even that doesn’t solve the dignity problem.  Once we’ve built all the roads and bridges and dams we need, the trade/tech/immigration “losers” doing makework jobs will know they are losers doing makework jobs. Think the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (“Reeks & Wrecks”) in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano.

5 Obamacare’s class problem

Maybe this is obvious! Here’s my crude, relatively unwonky framework for thinking about the ongoing troubles of Obamacare (specifically, of the Obamacare exchanges): It’s a class problem. The exchanges are attractive to lots of heavily subsidized near-poor Americans, but distinctly less attractive to middle class Americans with incomes above 4-times-poverty, about $48,000 for a single person. (That’s the point at which subsidies disappear and the exchanges become a much-less-good deal).  Most of the middle class doesn’t have to use Obamacare, of course, to their immense relief — they get coverage from their employers. (Some, like freelance writers, have no choice. They have been known to complain.)

Why is this lack of a middle class participants a problem? Not because “programs for the poor are poor programs.” (Some are, some aren’t). Two other reasons:

1) We’re all human beings with the same health problems — but poorer Americans tend to be less healthy, so premiums that cover a poor-heavy risk pool will be higher than the “one true price” that would cover a risk pool made up of everybody. Middle class people thrown into this unhealthy risk pool wind up paying higher prices than they should have to pay. **

2) Different tastes. If you haven’t had health insurance because you can’t afford it, you might rationally be happy with any access to a regular doctor at all. If you’re middle or upper class you probably want access to the best doctors and the best hospitals. Not surprisingly, with a huge near-poor presence and no big middle class presence Obamacare is evolving to serve the former group: Medicaid-like packages with low prices and short lists of maybe-not-quite-as-top-tier docs (sorry, make that “narrow … networks that are especially adapted to the needs of lower income consumers”) have driven higher-end plans off the playing field. In some places, it’s hard to get a plan with top doctors and top hospitals on the exchanges even if you are willing to pay extra for it.  More reasons for the (healthy) middle class to look at Obamacare the way a traveler views a seedy hotel — something to be avoided if possible. ***

It’s not easy to see how this core problem can solved without somehow getting more middle class people off their employer plans and into the Obamacare pool, something they won’t want to do as long as — well, as long as there aren’t more middle class people like them in the Obamacare pool, which won’t happen as long as the plans are too expensive and too Medicaid-like,  which won’t change unless there are more middle class people in the pool ….

— Tinkering with the subsidy structure, a la the just-defeated Ryancare, might improve the mix a bit at the cost of leaving many poor Americans insufficiently subsidized and uncovered.

— Lowering the cost of the policies (by limiting “essential benefits,” for example) would also ease but not eliminate the underlying tension.

— Making the insurance mandate really coercive– with stiff penalties — is likely to be highly unpopular (who wants to be forced to check into a seedy hotel?) while failing to solve the problem, simply because there are too few middle class people to coerce. They’re squirreled away on their employers’ plans, and they ain’t comin’ out if they can help it.

Note that Medicare does not have this problem. Americans of all classes are in the Medicare system and good doctors are still (as of this writing) available. But even extending Medicare down to age 55 (from the current 65) or offering a public option (i.e. to effectively “buy into” Medicare) wouldn’t be a cure for Obamacare’s class problem: Those moves should again make  Obamacare policies much cheaper — in this case by removing the higher risk patients from the pool. That alleviates the symptoms.  But the insurance offered to whatever age group is left on the exchanges will still be overpriced for higher income people.

I suppose with enough money, anything can be fixed: You could slather the exchanges with such rich subsidies that they’d be a good deal for the semi-affluent as well as the semi-poor. That sounds awfully expensive, though. Would it be any cheaper than Bernie Sanders’ famously costly Medicare-for-all?

Or you could figure out some politically palatable way to knock millions of middle class people off their employer plans. Good luck with that.

Any help with this dilemma appreciated. …

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** — They do get at least one benefit they may not have had before: Insurance companies can’t kick them off if they get sick. Not enough to make the exchanges appealing apparently.

***-  Alternate analogy: When I was in Cleveland for the GOP convention, I needed some groceries late at night. The only open store was in a nearby, very poor neighborhood. The shelves were filled with highly suspect off brands —  Count Chocula would have been a welcome, healthy choice. The stuff wasn’t even that cheap. A valued local institution, maybe — but I would never voluntarily shop there again if a more Gelson’s-like alternative was available. Let’s say Obamacare is not the Gelson’s of health insurance.

7 One Way Trump Can Win on Health Care

Here’s an idea-so-crazy for a big, Trump-like move on health care of the sort Peggy Noonan seems to call for:  Lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55 (from 65) as part of the deal. Why?

1) This would remove the costliest, highest risk cohort (older people) from the Obamacare risk pool, allowing Obamacare insurerers to lower prices. The near-poor who are served by the program would find it easier to afford. Ditto the healthy young. The unsubsidized middle class would feel less ripped off.

2) The deal could still include many things Republicans want:--e.g.  replacing the individual mandate with some other incentive, offering tax credits instead of subsidies,  paring down the list of “essential benefits” (that anyone who buys an Obamacare policy must purchase–including substance abuse treatment), eliminating the rightly controversial Independent Payment Advisory Board.  Or bolder: Make selling Obamacare insurance a nationwide market (rather than in 50 state markets),

3) Medicare-at-55 wouldn’t just be a halfway house on the way to Bernie-style Medicare-for-everybody.  It’d be a way to give the competitive Romneycare/Obamacare model a chance to work. It’s not working now. We could decide later whether to apply it to Medicare or expand Medicare to absorb it. Let the best model win.

4) It would add to the federal budget. (Medicare isn’t cheap.) Since when has Trump been Dr. Cut-the-Deficit-Now?

5) How would it pass? Straight down the middle. Medicare-at-55 will be very popular with voters, including Trump supporters. That’s a big engine to power any deal through (just as voter hostility to welfare powered the 1996 welfare reform through, in another down-the middle play).  Democrats (and many Republicans) would have a hard time voting against a deal that included Medicare-at-55.  In the 1996 welfare debate,  President Clinton was a passive triangulator, oppposing, but not actively denouncing, the pro-welfare views of his own party in Congress. You’d expect Trump to be far less passive dealing with recalcitrant GOPs who don’t get on board.  Arguably that’s what voters expected when they elected him.

Just a thought!

3

Policy, the last resort of  … : Ryan Lizza on the allegedly suspiciously-friendly-with-Russians Trump players (Flynn, Manafort, Page):

To some extent, they all share Kislyak’s view that America, through NATO and its eastern expansion, has been needlessly hostile to Russia, that Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty is a nuisance issue, and that the U.S. and Russia could be united by the common threat from ISIS. [E.A.]

Yikes. That is so … um, reasonable. It would be easier to join the press’ near-unanimous scorn for the Trump advisers if it weren’t. …  (I wouldn’t say Ukrainian sovereignty is a “nuisance issue” — just not our cause, and not a cause we should be willing to go to war over.) …

0

David Frum on Trump and autocracy:

If the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.

This is anti-Trumpism as a closed system, no? It leaves no possibility that events can ever convince Frum he was wrong (e.g., that the dangers maybe weren’t imagined but were just never close to materializing). Nice work if you can get it. …

4 No “merit,” please! We’re American.

A small complaint about Tuesday’s speech: President Trump seems to think the most appealing way to frame his proposed immigration reform — shifting immigration from low-skilled to higher-skilled — is as “adopting a merit-based system.”

Why use that word? If I were going to crudely describe the roots of the Trump movement, it would be as a rebellion against the idea that people without degrees or high SAT scores or complicated training are the rational and inevitable losers in the global economy.  Trade sends their jobs overseas, unskilled immigrants take their jobs at home, automation may permanently remove their jobs from the face of the Earth. That’s why you got Trump!

Calling this  de-selection of the unskilled “meritocracy” only adds an invidious layer of judgment, as if the winners are superior to the losers — they have the smarts, or some other virtue (but usually smarts) and can justifiably look down their noses at unemployed ex-steelworkers in small Pennsylvania towns. That’s really why you got Trump. 2016 was a revolt for social equality.

It’s especially discordant for Trump to appeal to “merit,” in other words.  Let’s call people with skills people with skills. They may have “merit,” they may not!  In the case of immigrants, we don’t even know how they’ll perform in their new U.S. jobs — so even if you equate career success with “merit,” the judgment is premature.  Yes, there’s an argument for preferring them over the unskilled . As Trump argues, they’ll pay more taxes and consume less in various benefit programs. More important, skilled immigrants will compete with — i.e. lower the wages — of  well-trained Americans rather than unemployed ex-steelworkers.  But they aren’t better, any more than liberal Hollywood movie stars are better than Chris Arnade’s photo subjects.

“We are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans, that is not enough, we must be equal in the eyes of each other.”

10 The 1934ists: Ron Rosenbaum Edition

Godwin Is Dead: Ron Rosenbaum, one of the great magazine writers of our time, has written a widely-hailed L.A. Review of Books piece that he insists does not argue that “Trump=Hitler.”  He’s explicit on this point!

While Trump’s crusade had at times been malign, as had his vociferous supporters, he and they did not seem bent on genocide. He did not seem bent on anything but hideous, hurtful simplemindedness — a childishly vindictive buffoon trailing racist followers whose existence he had mainstreamed. … [G]enocide is almost by definition beyond comparison with “normal” politics and everyday thuggish behavior, and to compare Trump’s feckless racism and compulsive lying was inevitably to trivialize Hitler’s crime and the victims of genocide.

“I posit similarities and differences, not identity” between Hitler and Trump, Rosenbaum later declared. All very careful and nuanced. And yet, by the end of his piece, Rosenbaum seamlessly deploys the stock 1934ist template when discussing how the media should react to Trump: they should shun “compliance,” condemn “normalization,” emulate the “defiance that was heroic and inspirational” by the anti-Hitler journalists of the Munich Post. Obviously, Rosenbaum thinks the similarities are strong indeed– strong enough, anyway, to justify cranking up the full machinery of the pre-war anti-fascist struggle, strong enough to justify invoking the martyrs of Munich.

How strong, exactly? Rosenbaum says, “Trump and his minions are … attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German.” [Emphasis added]

And they’re not joking. If you’d received the threatening words and pictures I did during the campaign (one Tweet simply read “I gas Jews”), as did so many Jewish reporters and people of color, the sick bloodthirsty lust to terrify is unmistakably sincere. The playbook is Mein Kampf. [E.A.]

Sounds pretty bad. ** And if Trump really is that much like Hitler — Not identical! Not equal — no sirree! But with bloodthirsty views out of Mein Kampf! — then we really don’t want to normalize him the way so many Germans foolishly normalized Hitler. The trouble is, Rosenbaum’s own piece, with its riveting, punctilious descriptions of Hitler’s rise to power, makes a perhaps-unintended but near-overwhelming case that Trump is really not much like Hitler at all.

I’m talking here of any indications that Trump, like Hitler, will , if “normalized,” pursue an evil, autocratic course of action.  It’s not enough if both men are “mountebanks,”*** con men who don’t believe their cons, whose outrageous acts and contradictory statements distract, lull and befuddle opponents, so that

you can’t take a stand against Trump because you don’t know where Trump is standing. You can’t find him guilty of evil, you can’t find him at all.

What we need is the evidence, amid all the confusion, that Trump actually is driven to autocracy, as Hitler was — not that he, like Hitler, conned and clowned his way into office, but that he’ll use the office so acquired to further some horrifying, megalomaniacal, perhaps “bloodthirsty” anti-democratic scheme. That’s the key question, isn’t it? The Munich Post journalists knew that underneath it all Hitler was Hitler — and he needed to be fought, not normalized. How does the evidence they had compare with the evidence offered by Rosenbaum regarding Trump?

Here’s my crude catalog of HItler’s Hitleresque sins — as known (often uncovered) by Munich Post journalists — compared with Trump’s:

HITLER

— Had attempted to violently overthrow the government (the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923)

— Had “a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents”

— Sent his private militia (precursor of the SS) to physically ransack the newsroom of the paper that opposed him

Planned a “‘final solution’ for Munich’s Jews.”

TRUMP

— Supported by some racist and anti-Semitic tweeters

— Proposed, and then abandoned, a hold on travel to the US by Muslims.

— Allegedly had a copy of Mein Kampf by his bed

— Once ducked an invitation to “unequivocally condemn” David Duke.

You get the idea. The two lists are orders of magnitude apart. Are there things about Trump — seeds, if you will**** — that make reasonable people worry about future developments? Sure, just as there were with a dozen other national politicians (including Nixon and even FDR). But those are seeds, not the tree, and there are seeds of a lot of things in Trump, including many good things.  Hitler, you had more than seeds.

And don’t say (as Rosenbaum did when we argued on Twitter) that “[H]itler was in office 12 years Trump 2 weeks.” The list above is a list of things Hitler did before he took office in 1933 — the equivalent of Trump before January 20 of this year. Was boycotting the Iowa debate Trump’s Beer Hall Putsch?

Maybe Trump will try to acquire autocratic power. But, in Rosenbaum’s piece, that seems to be more an assumption than a conclusion.

This became clearer after the piece was published,  when Rosenbaum vigorously defended it on Twitter — because a funny thing began to happen. In argument, Rosenbaum tried to supply some of the evidence the piece he was defending lacked — evidence that Trump, if “normalized,” really would try to become an autocrat.  Hadn’t Trump aide Steve Bannon told the “press to ‘shut its mouth.'”?  That was “an example of autorratic [autocratic] impulse he shares with many dictators not just AH.”

Rosenbaum’s right: Telling the media to “shut up” [actually, saying it should “be embarrassed” and “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while”] does represent an autocratic impulse.***  It’s an impulse shared by half the politicians in America — but if followed blindly to its ultimate conclusion it would be bad news for the First Amendment. So why didn’t Rosenbaum include it in his piece, which cries out for actual examples of the dictatorial drive that only Munich Postische anti-normalist resistance can block?

Answer: Because it would look pathetic. Hitler sent his militia to physically destroy newsrooms.  Trump has an aide who said a hostile press should put attacks on hold! See the paralllel? We do … and we don’t.

Likewise, Rosenbaum, who mentions the “Muslim ban” in passing in his piece, refers on Twitter to Trump ” banning an entire religion.”   When a Twitter adversary notes Trump’s actual executive order affected only 7 out of  “40 or so Muslim countries,” Rosenbaum responds “the order can be extended w/o to all Muslim nations.”  Why yes, it can! But that would be a transformative change, and Trump has been heading in the opposite direction. Normalization works sometimes.

If comparing Politican X to Hitler makes you spend most of your time explaining that you aren’t equating the two, and mainly succeeds in making your legitimate complaints about X seem small in comparison to Hitler’s monstrousness, maybe it’s not such a useful comparison. Godwin had a point! If Trump’s only a 2% Hitler then maybe the media attitude we need is 2% no-business-as-usual anti-normalization–or, in any case, not 100% heroic***** dedicated resistance. All Rosenbaum’s words spent in stirring description of the Munich Post tend to obscure this point. They become a distraction, much as even Trump’s more righteous tweets are often distractions.

Why strain to make the comparison? Why not find an autocrat who better fits the subject? (Berlusconi seems an obvious choice.) [Because then Trump’s opponents couldn’t cloak themselves in the glory of the German resistance?–ed You said that.]

**************

** — The antecedent of “they” — who are “not joking” — seems to be Trump, or maybe “Trump and his minions.” Not merely the minions.

*** –Rosenbaum notes that historian Alan Bullock, proponent of the “mountebank” theory, “would later change his mind” and acknowledge that Hitler was heavily invested in his anti-Semitism.

**** — Attacking judges represents another potentially troubling impulse, a “seed”– one Rosenbaum doesn’t mention in his piece. So far, Trump has engaged in name calling while he obediently complies with judges’ orders.  The author of the “Mein Kampf playbook” went a little further (at one point setting up an alternative court system until the judges “knuckled under”).

*****– Does it take heroism to oppose Trump? Not that I can see. In most places resistance (like resistance to the Vietnam War, or to Nixon) is more likely to get you laid.  Former N.Y. Judge Robert Smith wrote recently that “Not many federal judges travel in circles where being an enemy of Donald Trump is anything but a badge of honor.” Same for journalists.

2

Luckily, in the future there will be no irony:  “There is no walk of life that is not going to require computational understanding,” says Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, describing his notion of a future oriented around Artificial Intelligence. But he’s optimistic!

“The most exciting thing to me is beyond what we are doing ourselves, which is to take the same AI capability we have and make it available so everybody can use it,” he says. Take the state I was born in [Andhra Pradesh] and the state I live in [Washington]. Both are using essentially the same machine-learning algorithms to make high school dropout predictions.” [E.A.]

Exciting! But is the algorithm sophisticated enough to realize that, since pretty clearly there’s no role for non-smart people in Nadella’s vision of the future, high school students in both countries may be saying “F*ck it, might as well drop out now”?

1 OK, Back To Immigration …

If President Trump’s speeded-up nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was designed to  “change the subject” away from his controversial executive order on refugees, etc., it seems likely to fail. Why? Gorsuch is too good a choice. He’s qualified. He’s respected. Everyone now assumes he’ll be confirmed. It’s a fight with a known outcome, therefore less dramatic — therefore it gets less coverage and won’t crowd out the overexcited reaction to the immigration order. … If only Gorsuch had some scandal or ethics issue — a nanny problem? post-graduate drug use? murky sex harrassment charges? Trump supporters dream, can’t they?– it would help Trump out, but so far, nothing. … Aggressive Democratic cries about the “stolen seat”  do aid the president in this regard, but it’s hard to believe they’ll succeed in changing the subject for long, absent some fresh dispute about the actual nominee. …

3

The massive Kausfiles Rebuild Project is in theory complete. The unheated Venice warehouse, once filled with surly millennial coders,** lies silent, its floor littered with empty bottles of $12 juice. ….

The purpose of the rebuild is to (again) mix tweets with blog items, a rebellion against the disastrous early Word Press era in which blog posts became discrete, pompous hey-link-to-me declarations. Ben Smith may think this was the golden age of blogging. To me it was the beginning of the end. …

I’m sure I’ll screw things up for a while. There will still be many more tweets than blog items, though a) I’ll try to write more of the latter especially since b) it should now be possible to easily expand tweets into short (or long) blog entries.  Will escaping the 140 character limitation make them better or worse? I actually don’t know. Could be worse! It’s awfully easy to kill a tweet with improvements.

** — The tech work was actually performed by John Keegan of Rackshare. I recommend him. …

56 It’s Not 1934

Wanted: A name for the hypertrophied fear of Trump that’s overcome so many — maybe most — of his opponents.  Do you really need examples? There was the ThinkProgress editor terrified of his plumber:

He was a perfectly nice guy and a consummate professional. But he was also a middle-aged white man with a Southern accent who seemed unperturbed by this weeks news. … I couldn’t stop thinking about whether he had voted for Trump, whether he knew my last name is Jewish … I couldn’t shake the sense of potential danger. I was rattled for some time after he left.

More recently, here’s Adam Gopnik in one of  those New Yorker paragraphs so classily convoluted you don’t notice the embedded hooey:

Assaults on free speech; the imprisoning of critics and dissidents; attempts, on the Russian model, likely to begin soon, to intimidate critics of the regime with fake charges and conjured-up allegations; the intimidation and intolerance of even mild dissidence (that “Apologize!” tweet directed at members of the “Hamilton” cast who dared to politely petition Mike Pence); not to mention mass deportations or attempts at discrimination by religion—all things that the Trump and his cohorts have openly contemplated or even promised—are not part of the normal oscillations of power and policy. They are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse. … [**]

The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were.

Of course, you don’t need these examples if you have Democratic Facebook friends.  Just read their posts — alarms about journalists jailed and killed, brownshirts, ethnic cleansing, pervasive surveillance, people living in fear, exterminationist violence, the whole nein yards. They’re scared.

The thing is, they’re not poseurs — they’re sensible citizens. They are, many of them, my friends. They’re in no way ignorant. That’s why the dismissive label “Trump Derangement Syndrome” doesn’t seem an accurate description (in addition to being belittling and ineffective). If they see the seeds of authoritarianism in Trump’s “Hamilton” tweet — or more plausibly in his suggestion that he might pick and choose which reporters can attend briefings … well, sure. Those are seeds. There’ve been seeds before, of course. There were the seeds of authoritarianism in Truman bullying a press critic who panned his daughter’s singing. There were more than seeds in Roosevelt’s NRA, in Nixon’s wiretapping and J. Edgar Hoover’s longrunning COINTELPRO surveillance and harrassment of dissenters.

It’s not deranged to extrapolate from seed to tree, and to worry that the relative handful of alt-righters (50,000 ?) and smaller handful of anti-Semitic trolls (1,600?)  might produce something very bad. You can imagine a world where Jews are attacked by their plumbers. My mother grew up in such a world (Frankfurt, Germany in 1933) and I’m here because her parents had the good sense to flee.

It’s thinking that such development–from seed to tree–is at all likely today that seems … well, wrong. Let’s call it wrong!  We have strong counter-majoritarian institutions (including an independent judiciary) and a culture that supports them. The idea that Trump is going to mobilize some army of thuggish supporters to intimidate the press, the courts, the opposition party and half of his own party seems a fever dream, no less feverish because of its rational basis.

Yet those who adhere to this unnamed tendency — let’s call it ’34ism, unless you can come up with a better name *** –allow the power of their terrifying dream to overwhelm sober consideration of everything Trump does or intends to do, good or bad. We’re supposed to draw up sides — condemning (and ostracizing) those who are “complicit” in Trump’s administration and welcoming those who “stand on the right side of history” — even before we know whether the authoritarian seed will grow or wither, disregarding all the other positively auspicious seeds (reform of trade, control of borders, fewer foreign military adventures,  ending the Republican threat to Social Security and Medicare, etc.) that might flourish instead. In Slate 34ist Yascha Mounk’s head it’s practically Life During Wartime already, with brave Trump critics fired from their jobs, sleeping on the couches of their secret colleagues in the Resistance. Keep the car running.

Suggested alternative: See what happens first! Don’t let the reaction to Trump be dominated by one extremely unlikely bad possibility, at the expense of nurturing the far-more-likely good possibilities.

Coming in next post: How does 1934ism go away? Is it enough that the brownshirts don’t appear? (Spoiler: Maybe not.)

__________

**– The Hooey: Gopnik says authoritarian measures against critics “are unprecedented and, history tells us, likely to be almost impossible to reverse.” This is fatuous on both counts. 1) Even direct assaults on free speech are far from unprecedented –e.g. the Sedition Act of 1798, passed not too long after our nation’s founding, or the imprisonment of Eugene Debs for opposing World War I. 2) They also haven’t been that hard to reverse. The Sedition Act was repealed in Thomas Jefferson’s term expired in 1801 after Jefferson campaigned against it and the House voted down an attempted renewal. It’s highly doubtful that Debs could be imprisoned under current First Amendment law — the opposite of what Gopnik declares “history tells us”.

*** — Better name ideas appreciated — just put them in the comments section below, or tweet them to @kausmickey. Thanks.