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Some time in the next few days or weeks you're going to start hearing about President Trump's infrastructure plan. It will be sold as a $1 trillion investment in rebuilding America. It will be sold as a jobs program. It will be sold as a boon for the working man.
Don't believe a word of it.
To be clear, we could desperately use a large and meaningful commitment to rebuilding America's infrastructure. Years of tax cuts, service cuts and neglect have led to a degradation of our highways, railways, airports, bridges, tunnels, waterworks, sewers, the energy grid, our schools and our hospitals. The very bones of America are cracking and calcifying and they require a heavy investment in order to bring them back to strength.
The fact that doing so could provide employment for hundreds of thousands of people is, obviously, an added benefit. The official unemployment rate is low, but it's deceiving. Thousands of people of working age have simply left the workforce and a large number of people still nominally in it are underemployed and are receiving far lower wages and far worse benefits -- if they get any -- than they have in the past. We're a wealthy country, but that wealth is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people while an entire class of people and the communities in which they live are atrophying or even dying.
While an investment in infrastructure and the men and women who would build it would be expensive, there is virtually no downside, in the long term, to making said investment. From the building of our railways to New Deal public works projects to the war effort to the interstate highway system to the space race, we've seen how putting our nation to work in order to build its infrastructure and industrial and technical capacity has benefitted America over and over again.
But that's not what Trump will propose. Rather, he'll be proposing a welfare program for banks, venture capitalists and corporations. Yet another giveaway to the rich that will do little if anything to help the country or its workers.
As is evidenced by the only document on infrastructure his campaign or administration has released, Trump will propose a grand expansion of "public-private partnership" projects in which private companies will be offered tax and financial incentives to bankroll various projects. Tax breaks to private investors who want to finance toll roads, toll bridges, or other projects that generate their own revenue streams which the private companies will collect, in whole or in part.
While such public-private partnerships have been successful in Canada and Australia, the results here have been spotty at best. According to the Congressional Budget Office, there have been 36 PPP programs in the U.S. since 1991. Fourteen of them are complete. Three have declared bankruptcy. One required a public buyout. The rest are still in construction stage. It's a relatively untested and thus far uneven method for addressing our infrastructure needs.
Regardless of how the existing projects pan out and regardless of the theoretical promise of such programs, the idea of incentivizing private, profit-driven investment in infrastructure has at least four big problems:
The first problem: A huge portion of our infrastructure are not profit-generating, nor is it intended to be. No one is going to make a fast buck getting lead-poisoned water system rebuilt. You can't profit from repairing an existing road or bridge that is part of a non-toll road. You're not going to get private industry jazzed to build a public school, a public hospital or a levee along the Mississippi. Those things do not represent a profit opportunity for private industry and no amount of tax breaks are going to cause companies to pursue them. They'll just build for-profit private schools and hospitals and a parallel toll road and bridge system that serves to economically segregate people who want to pay to get to work from those who can't.
The second problem: The sorts of projects that do present profit opportunities already have ample incentive: THE PROFITS. There's a lot of money to be made in energy generation, for example. And a lot of companies in that business already. Adding that sort of thing to an infrastructure bill is only going to serve as a tax money giveaway to companies doing things the're already doing. It will also incentivize those who might've started projects in 2017 to delay them until a bill is passed to make sure they lock in those goodies from America's taxpayers.
The third problem: As it stands, most of the major public-private projects already in existence are financed with bonds purchased by giant investment funds like pension funds, worker's comp funds, public endowments and sovereign wealth funds. These investors already have zero or minimal tax liability, so the new tax incentive-fueled partnerships will do nothing to attract them. Many of the new players Trump's plan would potentially incentivize don't have the capital to take advantage of the opportunities and the calculus will not change for those that already do.
The fourth problem: All of this will be sold with the argument that the tax breaks being offered will pay for themselves many times over. Specifically, that hundreds of billions of tax breaks to corporations and investments will generate the equivalent of a trillion dollars in projects. This is a classic trickle down, supply-side argument which has proven to be an abject failure over and over again for the past 35 years. It never works that way in practice and experts do not believe it will work here. What happens is that the tax breaks are gobbled up, the benefits don't pan out as expected and tax payers end up paying for a huge part of it all anyway.
While there is some use for public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects, they seem best-suited to smaller projects in which the public and the private sector's interests are congruent. Trump's plan, in contrast, is likely to be a giveaway to developers, real estate moguls, venture capitalists, fund managers, tax lawyers, CEOs and starry-eyed entrepreneurs cum dreamers like Elon Musk. All of whom, not surprisingly, have been invited to the few meetings Trump has had regarding infrastructure since he took office. The idea is to benefit America's businessmen, not its workingmen, and to hope, somehow, that some good things spin out of it.
It doesn't have to be this way.
America faced a far greater crisis of infrastructure -- and a far greater crisis of unemployment and underemployment among the working class -- once before. In the wake of the Great Depression we were a nation close to ruin. A quarter of the population was out of work and, as opposed to crumbling, our infrastructure was virtually non-existent. We were a 20th century nation living in a 19th century country.
The response: The New Deal, which included multiple employment and public works programs. Some of them -- mostly via the Works Progress Administration, or WPA -- were immediate, so-called shovel-ready projects that put laborers and unskilled people to work quickly via direct government investment. People building small buildings, planting trees and clearing recreation trails and the like. It's the sort stuff most of us think about when we think of the New Deal. They were, obviously, critically important to our recovery from The Great Depression and their impact still resonates today.
But these quick, direct, job creation-focused projects were not the only part of the equation. Indeed, a much more significant program -- with more significance to the current infrastructure conversation -- was the Public Works Administration (PWA). It focused on large, complex long-term projects like dams, bridges, hospitals, schools and transportation infrastructure. It gave us stuff like airports, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Grand Coulee Dam.
If you squint super hard, I suppose the PWA could be seen as something at least roughly akin to public-private partnerships in that the federal government did not mount these projects directly or unilaterally with big signs at each job site advertising them as part of FDR's America. Rather, funding was given to states which, in conjunction with the PWA, devised projects and hired construction firms which, in turn, hired their own workers. I suspect, when Trump's plan is rolled out, some will make comparisons to the PWA for this reason. But there are huge differences between how the PWA operated and how Trump's infrastructure plan will operate, both structurally and philosophically.
Most obviously, the PWA and state governments decided what the projects were, prioritized them and put them out for bid. They did not create tax incentives and then just hoped that the free market would get the job done. Our public officials, agencies, commissions and citizens groups have a clear, day-to-day understanding of the needs of our communities. Developers and contractors are not in the business of gauging those needs. They're in the business of doing what they're hired and paid to do. Letting them, as opposed to the people, both as citizens and through their government, make those decisions is to have the tail wag the dog.
Likewise, the PWA featured active management and oversight by the government. Trump's plans, in contrast, will almost certainly feature all manner of middle men -- investors, financiers and management companies -- handling projects on a day-to-day basis, taking cuts and fees in ways they'd never be allowed to under a well-regulated public project. Indeed, they're already preparing for this. Now, to be sure, there is obviously a danger of inefficiency and graft in ANY project, but taking these projects completely out of the hands of those in a position to police it and institutionalizing and laundering the graft via fees and payments to financiers guarantees it. Every dollar that goes to one of these middle men is diverted away from bricks, mortar and the paychecks of people who work for a living.
There was no prioritization of profit-generating projects in the PWA and no requirement, as Trump's plans will almost certainly set, that projects be "deficit-neutral." As stated above, there are vast swaths of public infrastructure that are not intended to be profit-generating -- quick, how much money did the Interstate Highway System make last year? -- and should not be viewed through that lens. They are, by definition, projects to serve the public, and asking whether private industry can make a buck off of any given project is the wrong question to ask.
As for "deficit-neutral," sure, we all want to keep the deficit down, but it costs money to do things and pretending that it does not is what caused our infrastructure to be neglected in the first place. The first inquiry for any project should be "is this needed?" The second should be "is this feasible?" When it comes to "can we afford it?" the answer should include both the costs of the project and and inquiry as to whether it's possible to raise additional revenue to support it if necessary. America was not built without taxes and without the expenditure of public funds. It will not be rebuilt without them either. As my friends on the right enjoy reminding me, there is no such thing as a free lunch. As I enjoy reminding them, government is not the enemy. It is the means of administering a civilization.
So what do we do?
The specifics of any infrastructure plan will be subject to a lot of messy negotiation and legislation, all of which will be informed by outside interests and the usual political wrangling that surrounds any large scale government project. I'm not an expert in these matters and cannot say if $X billion should go to roads while $Y billion should go to water systems.
But I can point to some general principles that can and should guide our country's approach to a much-needed infrastructure initiative:
The final principle is not one that can be enforced via legislation, but it is one that is nonetheless important philosophically speaking: Infrastructure should be understood as an investment, not merely an expense.
Politicians and commentators are great at talking about the cost of things but poor at talking about their value. We should endeavor, however, as we take on the task of rebuilding America's infrastructure, to focus on what these projects will bring us over 10, 20, 50 and 100 years, not just on what they'll cost to build.
As we do so, we should look at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood and at the Riverwalk in San Antonio. We should look at LaGuardia Airport in New York and the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. The Triborough Bridge and the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Overseas Highway of the Florida Keys, the Lincoln Tunnel and the Hoover Dam. We should know that, today, as we enjoy some of these things and merely utilize others, they are all part of the essential fabric of America. They, and countless other projects and engineering feats are the foundation upon which America's greatness was built. They are its very bones.
None of these were built with an eye toward lowering the taxes of a developer or giving a tax break to a Wall Street financier. And none of the great works in our future should be either.
Republicans have had seven years to draft and pass a repeal/replacement bill for the Affordable Care Act. For almost all of that time, they drafted nothing.
Then, last month, they came up with a hastily-drafted bill that would leave 24 million more Americans uninsured than if they just left the ACA in place and which would make health insurance completely unattainable for millions and millions of seniors. But it's not just the substance that was bad. The process of getting there was laughably amateurish:
Health care is one of the most important issues facing our nation today. It is at or near the top of the list of top concerns in virtually every poll taken. And the Republicans are attempting to ram through a wildly unpopular bill in the most reckless and thoughtless way imaginable.
The most reasonable conclusion to draw: they don't care about health care. They only care about being able to say "we got rid of Obamacare." No matter how costly the results are and no matter how many people are harmed in the process.
Even if you give them the benefit of the doubt on this and accept that they care, this is the most carelessly drafted bill with the most slipshod implementation I have ever seen. Certainly for something as important as this.
It's amateur hour.
As I wrote last month, my congressman, Pat Tiberi, has been called the "quarterback" of the efforts to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the AHCA.
Based on how the game is going so far, it looks like it's time for the quarterback to ride some pine.
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll released on Friday, the public opposes the Tiberi/Paul Ryan/Donald Trump-backed bill by a 21-point margin ― 45 percent to 24 percent. Perhaps more notable is the intensity of the public's hatred of the bill, with just 5 percent strongly favoring the bill, and 32 percent strongly opposed. Yes, that's right: more people passionately oppose the bill than even generically support it.
This makes sense, of course, as the AHCA would leave 24 million more people without insurance than the Affordable Care Act would. Fourteen million of those people would be Medicaid recipients, the poorest and most vulnerable Americans, which demonstrates just how cruel the AHCA is. As I've noted in the past, the Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but we could easily make it better if we wanted to. The AHCA is designed to be terrible and would create a public health catastrophe if enacted. Pat Tiberi, Paul Ryan and Donald Trump don't care about this, however. They just want to give hundreds of billions of dollars away to rich people.
Regardless of where you come down on all of that, one thing is clear: Pat Tiberi was given the job of quarterbacking the repeal of Obamacare and the enactment of the AHCA. We're not even midway through the first quarter of that contest and he's been picked off and sacked multiple times and now he's forced to scramble. He's also got his team in a deep hole early and it's clear he lacks the ability and the confidence to mount a comeback.
Any coach worth a damn would bench a quarterback with results like that. Paul Ryan is the coach right now, however, and he seems content to let him flail. As such, its time for us to bench Pat Tiberi.
Beginning with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964 -- and certainly since Ronald Regan was elected in 1980 -- a campaign has been mounted by conservatives to shrink the government and reduce its role in society. Based solely on the size of the federal budget it has not been a terribly successful campaign. The government, quite obviously, remains large and continues to spend trillions of dollars a year.
The campaign has been quite successful, however, in changing Americans' attitudes about government. Indeed, for most of my lifetime, it has been accepted, almost as gospel, that government, to use Reagan's word, is the problem.
However overbroad this all was -- the problems facing America in 1981 were many and disparate and not all of our own making -- there was a good deal of truth to Reagan's critique. There was mismanagement and bureaucracy and all manner of mission creep in government by the 1970s which often caused government agencies to lose the plot and which prevented them from doing their jobs efficiently. Reagan and those who followed him -- many of them Democrats, who eventually realized that Reagan's message had the confidence of most of the nation -- did a good deal to address those inefficiencies. Or, at the very least, to pay lip service to them in an effort to avoid an accusation of being a "Big Government Liberal," which has proven to be an electoral liability for the past 33 years or so.
Yes, blaming big government for our problems turned out to be a very successful campaign. It was so successful that, for years, one need not even make much of an effort to shrink the size of government to proclaim oneself a Reagan-style conservative. Merely voicing anti-government sentiment and proposing modest overhauls here and there has been enough. People still think Reagan himself shrunk the government and reduced the federal deficit when he did exactly the opposite. Same with George W. Bush. In reality, the government has not shrunk overall in the past several decades, even if politicians still style themselves as budget-cutters as a matter of image and personal brand. Dime store Reagans, the lot of them.
In recent years, however, going after the government has not been a matter of mere rhetoric. It's increasingly becoming a concrete policy objective. The idea of government being the problem has morphed into the notion of government being the enemy. Rather than address the government's flaws and govern more efficiently, the goal of conservatives has been to dismantle the government. Or at the very least to severely hobble it.
This is evident from places where far right, Tea Party conservatives have taken power such as Kansas, where Sam Brownback and the Republican controlled legislature have run the state into the ground, essentially by design, via tax cuts and the elimination of government services. It is likewise evident in the budget outline offered by Donald Trump on Wednesday evening, which appears calculated to carry out the nihilistic fever dreams of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon to effect the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The budget outline represents a wholesale slashing of domestic programs, and will likely be followed up by proposed tax cuts and increases in military spending which will starve all government agencies -- apart from the Pentagon -- even further.
Ronald Reagan talked a big game about slashing government, but until recently there was an acknowledgement by those in power that there are a range of state functions that are legitimate and, in many cases, preferable, for governments to deliver. Trump and those who would fall in with him are rejecting that idea. They have bought the idea that government is the enemy. Some shadowy monster in the fog, to use a friend's phrase, that must be slain.
This is madness. The government is not our enemy. The government is, by definition, us. It is an instrument of the people and a manifestation of our will. And it is controlled by the people, even if we forget that from time to time.
The government is a means to a host of valuable ends. At least if one agrees that the well-being of the nation and the well-being of its citizens is desirable. If one grants that we want our environment to be healthy and clean. If one agrees that people should not go hungry in the richest country in the world and that people should not die because they cannot afford necessary medical treatment. If one agrees that we want our children to be educated and our workforce prepared for the challenges of the present and the future. If one agrees that our workplaces should be safe. If one agrees that our economy should be vibrant. That the rich should not be permitted to take advantage of the poor and the strong should not be able to take advantage of the weak.
When I've voiced this sentiment in the past, many conservatives have responded by saying that, while those are all laudable ends, they are not the business or the responsibility of the government. Rather, they are the responsibility of individual citizens, who must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. That, when they cannot, it should fall to charities, churches, foundations and the private sector to aid them. The market, I am told, and the goodness of people who wish to help their fellow man, should, can and will help those in need.
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that this is ideological nonsense. We've tried such an approach before -- think of the 19th century and the free market dominated runup to the Great Depression -- and it simply did not work.
The bootstraps, the charities, the churches, the foundations and the good hearts of the wealthy, taken together, proved to be an abject failure in the face of the challenges of the industrialized world and an utter disaster once the calamity of the Depression struck. With the private sector and the philanthropy of industrialists and churches as the bulwark, we had child labor, abhorrent levels of infant mortality and polluted waterways, streets and skies. We had poorhouses and debtors prisons. We had public health crises and wholesale crop failures. We had a brand of unfettered capitalism that led to depressions, recessions and corruption.
Conservatives often accuse liberals of being starry-eyed idealists, but the level of fantasy and delusion it takes to believe that we can address the problems faced by a nation of 300 million people by returning to the approach we took to such matters at the turn of the 20th century, when our population was far smaller and our economy and our challenges far less complex, is off the charts.
We still must deliver prosperity, health, safety and all of the other desirable ends upon which civilized people agree. We cannot, however, depend on some fantasy version of a government-free society to provide it. We've tried that before. It did not work then and it will not work now. While I want to believe in the goodness of my fellow man, people, when given a choice, will not be charitable enough en masse to address these societal problems. To meet challenges that impact an entire nation, it takes the mobilization of the entire nation. It's simply a matter of complexity and scale.
Does this mean socialism? Communism?! Of course not. It merely means searching for the appropriate balance between public and private efforts while acknowledging that both public and private efforts are legitimate and effective when properly supported and properly deployed. It means that it is time to stop pretending that government is the enemy and acknowledge that government, in many cases, is the most effective means of delivering the ends we all desire. Mostly because, as we have seen, the private sector has no interest in delivering many of them.
As it stands, the hard turn to toward the private sector we've taken as a country since 1980 -- first rhetorically, and now in practice -- has led to suffering and inequality on a level not seen since before the New Deal and is quickly exacerbating the problems we face as a nation. It is time to restore some of the balance we saw when America was, without question, the leader of the world in prosperity and freedom.
In the coming days and weeks, I'll be writing more about where, exactly, I believe that balance to be and how I believe we can achieve it.
Back in 2008, Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said "show me your budget and I'll show you what you value." Last night Donald Trump released an outline of his budget -- his “deconstruction of the administrative state,” in the words of his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon -- and it certainly does that.
Trump's apparent values: nihilism and cruelty:
No federal program, however well-intentioned, perfectly and efficiently carries out its stated mission. Any of us could go line-by-line down the federal budget and find fat and waste.
And, to be sure, this is just an outline. The so-called "skinny budget" that presidents release in advance of more substantive proposals down the line. Congress is the branch of government in charge of budgeting and it will, at best, nod at all of this as it does what it intends to do. Some in Congress have already declared this a "dead letter," so the chances that any of these cuts and changes actually come into effect are uncertain at best and highly unlikely in many cases.
But it is not a useless document. It, as Joe Biden said in 2008, tells us what Trump values. And what he does not value.
Even if Trump doesn't get anything he wants in his first budget as president, he has already signaled who he is. Ask yourself if his values are your values.
I was sitting in an airport last night, waiting for my connection, refreshing Twitter over and over again on my phone, riveted to what was unfolding with respect to Donald Trump's tax returns. But I wasn't excited about the news itself. I was flummoxed at how desperately people seemed to need the impending report of them to contain a bombshell.
The report did not contain a bombshell. We learned that Trump earned $150 million and paid $38 million in income taxes in 2005. This may be interesting and may lead to later, more interesting reporting about Trump's financial dealings, but it is not the sort of thing that will damage Donald Trump in and of itself. Indeed, I question whether any given revelation regarding Trump's curiously withheld taxes will ever be as exciting as people want them to be. After all, it's not like there's a line on your 1040 that says "Shady payments received from Russian oligarchs $_____" and Trump is unlikely to have included a 1099-MISC from "PutinCorp" in his 2014 return.
It's also worth noting that, as far as bombshells go, Trump has survived far greater ones. This is a man who, weeks before the election, was caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault. This is a man who has mocked the disabled. This is a man who has proudly insulted war heroes and families of fallen soldiers. These and many other missteps and mini-scandals would have ended the political careers of almost anyone who came before him, but they did not stop Donald Trump. If we've learned anything in the past year, we have learned that a scandal only stops a politician if the politician consents to being ruined via the operation of a basic human sense of shame. That's something Trump never has and never will possess.
All of which is to say that, contrary to the palpable and in some cases desperate hope of the people I saw waiting for last night's non-revelation, there is no magic bullet that will bring down Donald Trump. Waiting for one to do so will result in nothing but disappointment.
Part of this is due to Trump's shamelessness, but only part. A much bigger part of it has to do with Trump's appeal. He's an odd sort of populist, but he's a populist, following the basic populist playbook. He has found a wound common to many. He has told his supporters that he knows they are wounded. He has found others to blame for these wounds and he has demonized them. What's more, he has told his wounded supporters that some of the evil ones who have helped inflict these wounds will come after him because they are jealous haters and losers who peddle fake information. And last night, as they have so many times before, they came for him. Rachel Maddow could've held up a signed and notarized 1040 form that had "I, Donald Trump, did 9/11!!" scrawled on it in red crayon, and would not force the sort of end game of Trump's power that so many seem to want set into motion.
We know this because the politics of personal discreditation have never worked against populist despots. As Andrés Miguel Rondón wrote in the Washington Post back in January, the Venezuelan opposition tried this with Hugo Chávez for years. They attempted to point out Chávez's villainy and repugnance, believing that his supporters would see the light, but they didn't. They tried a campaign based on personal contempt, but it fell on deaf ears. Eventually they tried boycotts and coups, all of which, in their own way, are magic bullet strategies similar to those which people opposed to Trump hope will end his madness, even if they are more extreme. They never worked there and they will not work here.
They'll never work because human beings -- especially ones primed with a populist message like Trump's -- are conditioned to fight off enemies, perceived or otherwise. If you are coming at them or if you are coming after someone they love, they will assume a defensive posture and do whatever it takes to repel the attack. It's a totally understandable response with millions of years of selection behind it. No matter how sophisticated we think we are, we are all still basically tribal beings and we will ignore the faults and failings of the members of our own tribe when they are subject to external attack. Even if it's a modern day, high-tech attack conducted over cable television or the Internet.
None of which is to say that defeating Trump is hopeless. It's simply to say that the opposition will not prevail by defeating Trump himself, especially via the workings of some magic bullet. We will prevail by defeating his agenda and his policies.
We will prevail by persuasion. Basic political persuasion, effected not by theoretical or philosophical argument or by the claim, implicit or otherwise, that his supporters are stupid or have been duped, but by the simple marshaling of facts and data which demonstrate that Trump's policies are bankrupt and will harm those who he claims to be serving in concrete and quantifiable ways. We will prevail, not by casting ourselves as righteous and those who disagree with us as wicked, but making and supporting a claim that some policy outcomes are good and some are bad, why that is so, and that Trump's will lead to more bad outcomes.
We will prevail, not by defeating a tribe or, in Trump, a tribal leader, but by demonstrating, in both our words and our deeds, that we are not from different tribes at all. By showing that there is not "The Regime" and "The Resistance" and that there is not a "Real America" and whatever the name is for the fictional locale non-Trump voters are presumed to inhabit. That we are all a part of the same tribe -- the same nation -- and that defeating Trump's agenda is not a matter of civil war or hostile takeover but a matter of basic family business. That Trump is not the only choice available for tribal leader.
Demonstrating that more people will suffer via a given policy decision may be less exiting than gathering around our TVs, computers and phones waiting for a big, shocking reveal. Doing the legwork to show that a given law or regulation is less preferable than another is far less thrilling than the anticipation we get for a press conference from a U.S. attorney, the Director of the FBI or some producer or starlet who has decade-old dish on Donald Trump. Reaffirming our values, stating our goals and charting the best practical course to honor and achieve them may be mundane business, but that stuff will discredit Trump and get us out of this mess far more quickly and effectively than breaking (!), exclusive (!) investigatory reports from some Anti-Trump I-Team.
Part of me hopes that some damning fact or startling revelation will spark something in either the populace or in the conscious of Donald Trump that will stop the madness into which our country seems to have descended and, obviously, any information we learn about Trump and his dealings is relevant and potentially important. But I am not holding my breath. Magic bullets are, by definition, magic, and actual magic is pretty damn rare. I'd much rather place my faith in hard work and the people who do it than waiting for some kind of miracle.
I just filed my federal and state tax returns. It's a chore I dread every year. I don't much like paperwork and I especially don't like financial paperwork, so tax time is a double whammy. No, it's a triple whammy, because I likewise don't like parting ways with my hard earned money. Who does?
No one likes doing their taxes and no one likes paying their taxes, but you gotta do it, right? So I do it, and I grumble my way through the process, like just every other American. Seriously: if you find someone who enjoys all of this, steer clear of that person. They're probably messed up in a lot of other ways as well.
What I don't do, however, is look at the amount of money I pay in taxes and become resentful or filled with rage. I don't think to start a political crusade based on the idea of ending or severely limiting my tax burden as a matter of principle.
Part of this is because I'm old enough to remember and have read enough to know that tax rates used to be way higher than they are now. From a purely selfish perspective, I know that I am paying far less in taxes at my income level than I would've been at almost any time since the Great Depression. To act like my current marginal taxation rate is akin to tyranny is selfish, ahistorical nonsense. And don't even get me started on the tax rates people pay in some other countries.
But my relative sanguinity in the face of the dreariness of tax time is not simply a matter of me saying "it could be worse." It's a matter of understanding that my taxes are not some penalty leveled or punishment exacted. Taxes are -- to use an often-cited and often-misattributed phrase -- the price we pay for a civilized society.
Taxes make a peaceful existence possible by funding the armed forces which defend us from our enemies and the police officers and fire fighters who defend us from perils at home. Taxes help keep our drinking water safe. Taxes help create standardized systems and regulations which allow business to be more easily conducted. Taxes pay for the roads over which we travel and ship our goods and the schools which educate our populace. They help pay for health care and medicine. They help us respond to and provide relief from disasters, natural or man made.
Which isn't to say the more taxes the better. Taxes should be leveled wisely and tax revenues should be spent carefully. Like any other expenditure of money -- in the case of taxes, the people's money -- close attention must be paid to where the money is going and hard questions must be asked as to whether the expenditure is truly necessary. No one gets a blank check in this world, the government included.
But it is to say that taxes are not, like many on the right would have you believe, some evil confiscatory scheme. We, as a society, are buying things with that money. Things that individuals cannot buy on their own like a military, a police force and a space program. Things that, if we left it to the operation of the market alone, we would not have at all, like clean water, safe workplaces and assistance to the old, the sick and the poor. If you don't believe that, go look at what America was like a hundred years ago and ask yourself why the market didn't provide for those things then. Ask yourself if you'd choose to live in that world if you did not know before you chose whether you'd be a have or a have-not.
Everyone would love to pay lower taxes, but arguing in favor of cutting taxes for its own sake is inherently deceptive and dishonest. If you're cutting taxes, you're necessarily buying fewer of those collective goods, and you thus have an obligation to explain (a) what we should be buying less of; and (b) why it's OK to have less of it. We rarely get that explanation from those who promise lower taxes. We're sold lower taxes as an end unto themselves, with a side-helping of demonization of the government or, increasingly, a demonization of the people who benefit from government services. We get craven dishonesty, like that we're seeing in the current healthcare debate, in which politicians blatantly lie about what their programs will accomplish because they are afraid to admit that they're not interested in actually using tax dollars to help those who need it. They'll happily shout about lower taxes in a vacuum, however.
I hate doing my taxes. And I don't much like paying them. But I get something for my money. I get the benefits of what I believe to be the best country in the world, no matter what is currently ailing it. It's not the best because God or the universe deemed it so. It's the best because it was built to be the best. And just as it costs money to build something, it costs money to maintain it. And so, each spring, I fill out that 1040. And for the rest of the year I do the best I can to make sure that my money is well spent.
The coal mines are not going to reopen. The textile mills are not going to come back. Deindustrialization of the Midwest is not going to be reversed. At least not completely. While outsourcing gets most of the attention -- and while Donald Trump and the Republicans blame immigration and outsourcing for the decimation of job prospects in once-thriving industries -- it is the obsolescence of some industries, such as fossil fuel extraction, and the automation of others, such as manufacturing, which has been the biggest factor in unemployment and underemployment of the working class.
It is important for leaders, entrepreneurs and workers in areas hit hard by automation and obsolescence in legacy industries -- places like Ohio -- to stop looking to the past for economic prosperity. It is time for us to look toward the future. A huge part of the future will be -- and must be -- about energy. About increasing our energy independence and about making energy systems smarter, more economical, and more efficient. It's also about grasping the economic potential of new, clean, modern energy sources.
This is not about environmentalism, even if clean energy will, obviously, provide environmental benefits. It's about bringing Ohio fully and squarely into the advanced energy economy. It's about creating good jobs with good benefits in an industrial sector that is large, still growing and diversified.
According to a recent study (via Vox) the advanced energy industry brought in $1.4 trillion in revenue last year, globally. That's nearly twice the size of the airline industry, as large as the apparel industry, and close to global spending on media, including newspapers, movies and video games. It brought in $200 billion in the United States alone, which is nearly double that of beer sales, the same as domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing, and approaching revenues realized by wholesale consumer electronics.
While that may surprise you, know that we're not just talking about some small business building solar panels in some office park. The advanced energy industry includes:
You can read the breakdowns of each of these sectors and the current trends here.
The advanced energy industry is not just huge, but it's growing. In fact, it's growing much faster than the world economy overall (7 percent vs. 3.1 percent). In the United States advanced energy is up 28 percent since 2010 and the industry now supports 3.3 million jobs here at home. To give some perspective: the solar power industry alone accounts for 260,077 jobs. Coal mining, coal transportation, and coal-fired power plant combustion account for about 174,000 jobs combined.
Donald Trump and the Republican party don't want to talk about the advanced energy industry and none of their proposals seem geared toward supporting it or incentivizing its growth. Quite the opposite, actually. They view it as a fad at best, a liberal conspiracy at worst, lumping it in with social issues and the greater culture war. Hippie stuff they only care about in Berkeley, Austin or Ann Arbor. Indeed, they seem to take as some sort of personal affront to American values.
But it's not personal, it's strictly business. The business of energy generation, management, transportation and storage. The business of electric vehicles and electric vehicle fueling stations. The business of smart engineering and smart construction, from I-beams to HVAC units to security systems. It's about all of the allied and support industries which create and support these technologies. It's about tech workers, office workers, tradesmen and laborers. About white collar and blue collar, all working for a greener future, both environmentally and economically speaking.
Why would anyone say no to that? And why isn't anyone in Columbus or in Washington saying yes to it?
I wrote earlier that the Republicans' new health care proposal is an immoral tax cut gambit and little more. Which is not shocking, because it seems fairly clear to me that the Republicans have no interest in fixing the problems with the Affordable Care Act specifically or doing anything to help more people get health insurance in general. They simply want to cut taxes, almost exclusively for the wealthy, and to claim that they ended Obamacare as a matter of politics.
This should not be a controversial point. Despite the talking points about making a "better" health care system or covering more people, the simple, undeniable fact of a government-assisted health care scheme is that the less money the government spends on it, the fewer people will have coverage. Sure, there can and should be arguments about how money is spent, or whether it's all being spent efficiently, but that's tinkering at the edges. If you want to help more people have or purchase a thing, you have to pay for it or otherwise incentivize its purchase in a real way. Slashes to those payments and incentives will, by economic necessity, cut the number of people purchasing the thing. This is an immutable tenet of economics. The current Republican plan cuts money put toward health care coverage and guts or eliminates incentives for people to purchase it in myriad ways and will, without question, cut the number of people who have health care.
There's another option, of course: making the argument that government has no business helping people get health insurance or health care whatsoever. I don't subscribe to it -- I think it's a moral and ethical imperative for a wealthy and advanced society to care for its people -- but it's a philosophically consistent position for a certain sort of person. This sort of person. For those people who do not subscribe to it -- or who at least pretend not to, like every Republican lawmaker who claims to want to "fix" or "replace" the Affordable Care Act -- basic intellectual coherence demands that they admit that the proposed bill makes things worse, not better.
They can't do that, though, because they have determined, likely correctly, that it is politically untenable for them to do so. People want health care. They even like the ACA on balance, at least when it's not being referred to as "Obamacare," which creates a visceral, negative reaction. And they do not want their health care coverage taken away. As such, Republicans must appear to care about people getting health care. They must create the illusion that no one is going to lose their coverage until after the next election, which is exactly what the proposed law does via delaying most impacts until 2019. But they cannot simply come out and say that they want fewer people covered, insurance companies protected and taxes cut for the wealthy. Even if that's exactly what is happening.
How might this all play out if they were not invested in creating this illusion? How would it look if lawmakers actually did want to fix the problems in the ACA -- and there are problems -- and make it so that more people would have insurance coverage rather than just slash taxes? Many of you may believe such a thing is fantasy and that if there were easy fixes to the ACA they would've been done already. That's simply not true, though. Insurance markets are not new and similar problems like those faced by the ACA now have existed in the past and have been fixed in the past. Indeed, the last time it happened was a short time ago. And it was fixed by Republicans.
The fundamental problem with the ACA at the moment is that premiums are rising dramatically and insurers are dropping out of the market, giving subscribers fewer options. These things are related, of course, as basic economics dictate that fewer providers of a good, in the face of consistent demand, will lead to higher prices.
Why are the insurers dropping out and the prices rising? Because the number of enrollees, the type of enrollees and the costs of providing those enrollees health care are not what insurers expected. A big problem is that the ACA marketplace plans attracted more older people than the Obama administration projected and older people simply cost more to insure for obvious reasons. Another one is that the ACA anticipated that states would expand their Medicaid programs with the federal funds it provided. A lot of governors refused to do this for political reasons. As a result, in those states, poorer and sicker people who would otherwise be Medicaid-eligible were forced into marketplace plans.
Insurance is not super complicated, economically speaking. It's all a matter of group liability and shared risk. The healthy people help pay for the sick people. If insurers attract too few consumers attract too few healthy people and too many sick ones, costs outstrip premiums. When that happens insurance companies exit the market. When they exit the market the the costs go up for consumers and the choices become fewer. Over time, people just stop buying insurance altogether, exacerbating the problem.
As I said, we've seen this problem before. We saw it with Medicare. Specifically, the Medicare Advantage program, which is the private plan version of Medicare. In the late 1990s and early 2000s insurers dropped out of the program because premiums and government subsidies to premiums weren't keeping up with costs. With fewer providers, premiums went up and participants dropped out, just like we're seeing with the ACA now.
So what did President Bush and the GOP-controlled Congress do? They passed the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act. That law did a lot of things -- a lot of them bad -- but one thing it certainly did was increase the subsidies to policyholders and insurers, ratcheting up the financial incentives for the former to obtain insurance and the latter to stay in the market. It also provided for an aggressive marketing and awareness campaign aimed at signing up as many people as possible which, again, increased the size of the pool of insured people, which is a good thing for insured people. It's also worth noting that old line Medicare -- a public option of straight government-supplied health insurance -- remained. That gave people more choices and provided more competition, which is good for consumers.
Quite simply, the Medicare Modernization Act paid more more money in order to obtain more of a good. Just like anyone else would do for any other good. The result: more people got coverage, costs came down and the market stabilized. Just as any freshman economics student could predict.
There is no reason these lessons -- and basic economic laws -- could not be applied to the ACA. There is no reason not to subsidize policies more. There is no reason not to find ways to incentivize consumers to purchase more policies and insurers to provide more. I'd add that there is no reason not to offer a public healthcare option like straight Medicare for everyone, but that's another essay. The point is that there are ways to address the problems with the ACA as it's currently constructed that will insure more people and bring costs down for them.
Will it cost the government more? Sure it will. But I'm told by the supporters of the new health care bill that they want more coverage and better coverage first and foremost. I'm told that the new bill isn't about cutting taxes, but about improving health care. I'm told that they agree with the nation as a whole that health care and its costs are one of the most important problems in America today.
Well, is it? If it is, you have a road map on how to do what you claim you want to do, Republicans. And you've done it before. The only reason you won't use it is if -- heaven forbid -- you're not being genuine about all of this and, in reality, all you care about are the tax cuts.
You'll hear a lot about the GOP's new health plan in the coming days. Here are the things you really need to know, though:
1. It gives insurance companies a tax break on CEO salaries over $500,000;
2. It cuts taxes a minimum of $346 billion over 10 years, with every cent of that tax cut going to people earning more than $200,000 per year or $250,000 for couples.
3. It will, by its very terms and by the clear incentives it creates, cause millions to lose coverage, primarily the poor; and
4. It will give no person coverage who does not already have access to it via the Affordable Care Act.
Given that it reduces the amount of and access to health care services for every single person who uses or would use it, calling this a "health care" law is the most cynical and obscene thing I have seen from Congress in my lifetime.
Cutting taxes for the wealthy and allowing insurance companies to save money and pay their executives more was the only goal here. That and being able to say "we got rid of Obamacare!" in campaign ads.
The proposed law is morally indefensible. Any lawmaker -- like my lawmaker, Pat Tiberi -- who supports it is declaring that tax cuts for the wealthy are more important to them than the health and lives of human beings. Their support for this law is a declaration of their unfitness for office.
The Washington Post is reporting this evening that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied to Congress during his confirmation hearings. When he was asked directly by Senator Al Franken about contacts between officials in the Trump campaign and the Russian government, Sessions explicitly said no, he did not have such meetings or conversations. The Post now reports that Sessions spoke twice last year with Russia's ambassador.
While some surrogates of the Trump Administration have suggested that Sessions' conversations with the Russian ambassador pertained to Senate Armed Services Committee business, all 19 of the 26 other members of the committee the Post has thus far been able to reach have denied that they ever had discussions with the ambassador. If this was Senate business, it was singular and peculiar Senate business indeed with Sessions freelancing in unusual fashion.
While I am certain that Trump and Sessions will try to push back on all of this, at the moment, there is strong reason to believe that Sessions perjured himself before Congress. What's more, that he perjured himself with respect to a pressing national security matter that his own department is tasked with investigating.
As such, if this report holds up and if there is no compelling explanation for Sessions' apparently untruthful testimony, one of three things must necessarily happen:
1. Sessions must resign from office; or
2. Congress must impeach Sessions; or
3. We must admit that we are in an intractable Constitutional crisis due to the Congress' unwillingness to protect and vindicate its own processes and procedures and its failure to serve as a check on the criminal acts of a member of the executive branch.
It must be one of those three things. There are no other options. If neither (1) nor (2) is taken, the Constitution is essentially a dead letter.
So, Congress: what's it gonna be?
If there's one thing people in Central Ohio know a lot about, it's football. This is Buckeye Country, after all, and we've seen a lot of winning football over the years.
While not everyone around here may be as knowledgable as Urban Meyer when it comes to this stuff, we know a winner and a loser when we see one. The easiest way to spot a loser is to look at the quarterback and see if he has even half a clue. If he looks like he hasn't been given a good game plan, that's trouble. If he looks so lost out there that he begins to look scared -- like a deer in the headlights -- it's all over.
My congressman, Pat Tiberi, has been called the "quarterback" of repeal of the Affordable Care Act. He was called that by the head coach of Congress, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. That makes sense, as he's the chairman of the congressional subcommittee which is supposed to do all of the repealing and, allegedly, the replacing of the ACA. His coach has told him that he's to go out there and get rid of it and to replace it with something that isn't going to cause hardship or pain for the millions of people who rely upon it, over 50,000 of whom live in our district.
Coach Ryan, however, hasn't given our quarterback a game plan. This despite over six years to come up with one. Without a game plan, Tiberi is scared. And, as every football fan can tell you, a scared quarterback with no game plan is a sure loser.
We know there's no game plan because if there was one, we would've seen it by now. Oh sure, there's been talk of one. Donald Trump, who is the one who seems to be calling the plays here, says the plan will be "something terrific." "Something so much better, so much better, so much better." But that's no more a plan than a coach saying "we're gonna score more points than the other team." How? Neither Pat Tiberi, Paul Ryan nor Donald Trump has said how they're going to repeal the Affordable Care Act without it leaving the millions who rely on it high an dry. So our quarterback is forced to improvise.
So far he's doing a bad job of it.
Tiberi is ducking the people he claims to represent and is steadfastly refusing to meet with them. He won reelection pretty easily in 2016 and our district went for Trump by double digits, so this should be a game played on his home field and the pressure he's facing should not be more than even a modest pass rush. Yet he's got happy feet and has been flushed out of the pocket already. Less than two full months into the new Congress and Pat Tiberi is scrambling. He's scared.
He has every reason to be.
While no one -- myself included -- can honestly claim that the ACA is perfect, there are a lot of people in Ohio who have health insurance thanks to it. These are hardworking people for whom healthcare coverage provided by the ACA is a matter of life or death. These are people who may take issue with the ACA for some good reasons but, if their health insurance is taken away, they don’t know what they’re going to do. People who, if their child needed surgery or their wife got cancer and the Affordable Care Act was the reason they could get health insurance, wouldn’t be able to withstand it being ripped up without a plan to replace it. These are people who maybe don't like how the game has gone so far, but they have every right to see the game plan going forward and to know that it stands a chance of success.
Donald Trump and Paul Ryan have no idea what the game plan is. If they did, they would've told us by now. Yet they're sending their quarterback, Pat Tiberi, into the game all the same. He is woefully unprepared and isn't up to the challenge. And worse, he's scared. As anyone who has watched their team's quarterback struggle knows, that all but ensures defeat.
I have no idea if Trump and Ryan will ever come up with a game plan, but it's time to bench Pat Tiberi. He has no idea what he's doing out there and he's going to get somebody hurt.
Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Brian R. Alexander, author of the new book "Glass House." He's a brilliant man who has written an extraordinarily important book at the exact moment it is most needed.
"Glass House" chronicles the downfall of Alexander's hometown, Lancaster, Ohio due to the downfall of Anchor Hocking Glass which, in turn, was due to the machinations of private equity and greed. It's a story about how one party to the Great American Social Contract -- big business and finance -- decided that it was more efficient to breach its obligations to the other party -- workers and the communities in which they live -- than to honor them.
Anchor Hocking was a Fortune 500 company which, along with some smaller yet still important companies, formed the backbone of Lancaster for close to a century. This partnership of business and community led Forbes to dedicate an entire issue to Lancaster in 1947, calling it "the quintessential American town" and the “epitome and apogee of the American free enterprise system.” The city was vibrant, the people were prosperous, the schools were strong and the sense of community forged by the shared goals of its corporate and private citizens provided the stability necessary to allow Lancaster's civic culture to flourish.
While the decline of industrialized cities like Lancaster in the 1970s and 1980s is now characterized by many as an inevitable fact of history, there was nothing inevitable about what happened to Lancaster. Glass manufacturing is not easily outsourced due to the fragility of the product, so it's not a simple matter of Anchor Hocking's business moving to Mexico or China in search of cheap labor.
Rather, Anchor Hocking fell victim to private-equity financiers like Carl Ichan and Cerberus Capital Management swooping in and milking the company for whatever cash they could, while providing nothing of value to the company itself, let alone the people of Lancaster. Ichan greenmailed his way to several million easy dollars. Cerberus leveraged Anchor Hocking to the hilt, bleeding it with fees and percentages via deals that thrust all of the risk on the company and its workers and none on the owners, all of which was encouraged by the deregulation of the financial industry and the perpetuation of "greed is good" culture of the Reagan years. Valuable assets were sold off and leased back at company expense, massive amounts of debt was incurred and pension obligations were not honored, all while the company's succession of owners raked in millions.
While Anchor Hocking continues to be a going concern, the effect of these machinations has been devastating for Lancaster. Most obviously in terms of the elimination of jobs, the reduction in salaries and benefits for existing workers, factory shutdowns and the elimination of pensions, all necessitated by the company's massive, unnecessary debt and the bleeding of its revenues by financial speculators and corporate pirates. The result: Lancaster's unemployment rate has risen and its underemployment rate has skyrocketed in the past 35 years. It's simply a poorer place than it once was for some very direct and very obvious reasons.
But it's also worse off for some less-than-immediately-obvious ones.
When new ownership came in, the entire management and executive class of Anchor Hocking was either fired or moved out of Lancaster to far away corporate headquarters, cutting a huge chunk of wealthy and educated citizens out of the civic fabric of the city. As Alexander notes, these people -- and their spouses -- were the ones who organized public festivals, led philanthropic efforts, served as elders and leaders in churches, took an active role in the PTA and spearheaded a large portion of the cultural initiatives of the city. They likewise formed a class of people who were prosperous enough to be able to participate directly in civic and government leadership out of a sense of duty as opposed to careerism, which has a way of encouraging ethical behavior. A healthy city in a capitalist system needs working people making good wages, but it also needs an executive and political class with a vested interest in the community. When the financiers moved in on Anchor Hocking and relocated the company's brain trust to places like New York and Chicago, Lancaster lost this practically overnight and its civic and political institutions have suffered tremendously.
The combination of economic suffering and the suffering of civic culture has waylaid Lancaster, Ohio. It has suffered from all of the obvious things associated with increased poverty -- crime, drug abuse and corruption -- but it has also suffered psychic blows which are harder to capture with statistics.
Alexander, who now lives in California, returned to Lancaster to write this book and embedded himself in his old hometown. He forged real friendships with people he met in local dive bars and in once-proud country clubs which now sell memberships for $100. He was no cultural tourist, treating the people he met as data points of subjects. He befriended them and talked to them and listened to their stories.
They are stories of hopelessness and aimlessness. Of financial struggle and of cultural and existential ennui. For 100 years, a person who grew up in Lancaster had an idea of what they might do with their future that allowed for the possibility of staying there. Now, those who do not abandon Lancaster after graduating high school find themselves wondering how they fit into their community and how their community fits in the world. Maybe they take a series of service industry jobs which require little of them and which do nothing to instill a sense of pride or meaning or commitment. Maybe -- after years of hearing politicians, both Democratic and Republican, who claim to care about them but who do nothing to follow up their lip service with action -- they simply lose themselves to disillusionment. Maybe they just buy guns and Oxy in order to feel safe or to feel nothing. Maybe, in desperation, they throw in with a charlatan like Donald Trump who promises to make things the way they used to be.
As every review of "Glass House" will no doubt note, Alexander contends with many of the same issues and themes as does J.D. Vance's bestseller, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a logical comparison. Both are focused on small towns in Ohio which border on Appalachia. Both deal with social decline and decay, drug addiction, poverty and hopelessness. The differences between the books, however, could not be more stark.
Unlike Vance and "Hillbilly Elegy," which I reviewed a few months ago, Alexander and "Glass House" conclude that, rather than some ill-explained and spontaneous decision of working people to suddenly become shiftless and lazy, there are actual real, straightforward and understandable institutional reasons for Lancaster's decline. Vance, without any empirical evidence, views an entire swath of the country's problems to be attributable to a simultaneous moral failure on the part of millions of people. It's a view that, by shocking coincidence, absolves the sorts of investment banks and private equity firms for which Vance has worked of any responsibility.
Alexander, in contrast, makes a compelling and economical case that some very concrete causes led to real effects which flow logically from them. As a big fan of cause and effect over Vance's brand of magical thinking -- and as a bigger fan of assuming that people are rational actors and not lost souls, easily corrupted -- I fall SHARPLY in Alexander's camp when it comes to all of this. For what it's worth, he's also a much better writer who has seen much more of the world than has Vance and he comes off more intelligent and more empathetic than does America's latest literary and political darling.
Please, read "Glass House." Read it especially if you read "Hillbilly Elegy." Read it especially if you're a coastal liberal who nodded, uncritically, along with J.D. Vance's pablum as a means of assuaging your guilt about your ignorance of what has befallen middle America in the past few decades and felt that, by doing so, you were paying a proper amount of cultural penance. It's a better book that it better written and which has the benefit of making a boatload of sense where Vance's strains credulity every single time it strays from the memoir at its core. "Glass House" is not a simplistic fable like "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a smart, sensible, approachable and eye-opening book that treats a complex topic with necessary sophistication while treating the real human beings at its center with the respect they deserve.
"Glass House" does not tell us how to cure the disease which has infected American business and political culture, but it properly diagnoses it, and that's the essential first step.
I just watched the latest Trump press conference. As usual, it was a disaster. Not for him so much, as he's apparently bulletproof and/or oblivious, but for things like rationality, democracy and civil society. It served as just the latest in a never ending series of reminders that we have given a dangerously arrogant, deluded and incompetent man the nuclear codes.
It also reminded us that the press has no idea how to ask Trump a question.
I understand why they are having so much trouble. While presidents have used press conferences as a means of propaganda and reality denial for as long as presidents have given press conferences, at least a small amount of actual information has been disseminated at the things over the years. Presidents -- even Nixon -- have always possessed at least a scintilla of shame which regulated just how big their lies could be and which, in turn, reined in their most nonsensical tactics of distraction. As such, a reporter's lazy, open-ended or compound question has never been that harmful. Presidents have become experts at ducking them and steering them to other, more comfortable topics, but they have always at least pretended to be acquainted with reality and have always communicated some rudimentary information as they sparred with the Fourth Estate.
Not Trump. He hits the lectern at Mach 2 with his hair on fire spewing a brand of nonsensical drivel that would make Tristian Tzara chuck it all, go back to school and become an actuary. He is so utterly shameless that, were he not so mendacious, dangerous and corrupt, it'd almost be perversely admirable. He has blown past Orwellian archetypes so quickly that he is not even bothering to answer the question "what is two plus two" with "five." He's gone straight on to "potato."
As such, the presidential press conference has shed the last vestiges of an exchange of information and has, necessarily, become a truly adversarial affair. The guy being questioned has already, in explicit terms, declared war on the press. The investigative journalists and columnists have grokked this and are firing their big guns at Trump on the daily. It's time for the members of the White House Press Corps -- the ones who actually get to ask Trump questions -- to quit pretending they're sparring and join the goddamn fight.
While I am a member of the media, I'm not really a reporter. I never went to J-school and I don't interview people very often. I don't have a fedora with a card that says "press" in the band. I don't even own one of those cool little digital tape recorders. As an interviewer of willing, sensible and amiable subjects, I'm fairly mediocre. I get the basic information fairly well, but I'm not fantastic at digging too deeply below the surface. I just don't have the reps yet.
But as a lawyer who did cross-examinations and depositions and who conducted internal investigations for 11 years, I do have a lot of experience asking questions of people who don't want to answer them. Or who have something to hide. Like any trial lawyer, I've sat across a table or stood across a room from people who I knew to be lying to me and I got them to either admit it or to look so bad in denying it that they may as well have.
I was not successful at it because I am uniquely talented. Indeed, compared to my colleagues, I suspect I was pretty average when it came to legal talent and instincts. I was successful at it because I followed some basic rules that I and every other trial lawyer is taught. They are rules that, in this mad age, when the President of the United States of America is trying to get one over on us like some employee embezzling from the payroll of my clients tried to get over on me, would serve the White House Press Corps well.
The big ones:
Litigation, war and conducting presidential press conferences are, obviously, very different things. But they do have a few things in common. In all three you have a mission. Thanks to the approach the Trump Administration has taken, in all three you, unfortunately, have an adversary. Above all else in all three you have to have a plan and it has to be a plan that you can carry out without your adversary controlling the terms of engagement. By following the rules of litigation and, in some cases the rules of war, you're way more likely to be successful than whatever the hell it is you're doing now.
I became a full time writer in November 2009. According to WordPress, I've written 23,509 posts for NBC. I don't know what the word count average is, but even if you estimate on the low side that's somewhere between five million and ten million words. That's the same amount of words as, like, 120 novels. They'd be really bad novels, of course, but writing 17 novels a year is a lot of writing, even if it's bad.
In addition to that, I've written all of this personal stuff. Five hundred words there, a thousand words there. A few projects of 5,000 or 11,000 words. I've written over 132,000 tweets since 2009 as well. I post on Facebook. I live on my laptop.
As such, it was probably just a matter of time before I got carpal tunnel syndrome. I was diagnosed with it on Tuesday. They gave me this brace and some stretching exercises to do.
The weird part: it only really hurts when I stretch my arm out at full length to reach for things. It doesn't hurt at all to have my hands on the keyboard typing. Indeed, that feels just like normal.
Which means that, nah, I probably ain't gonna get better. Here's to 120 more bad novels.
"А у вас негров линчуют" is a Russian phrase which translates to "And you are lynching Negroes." It was a phrase used by leaders of (and apologists for) the Soviet Union in an effort to deflect criticism. Stalin sends millions to their deaths and oppresses millions more? "Hey, А у вас негров линчуют!" they would say in an effort to undercut American human rights charges.
It's clever enough on an abstract level in that, yeah, it has a literal truth to it. The United States' hands were certainly not clean with respect to human rights and civil rights. But it's also a logical fallacy of the most basic order. "Tu quoque" -- Latin for "you too" -- reasoning, which goes like this:
Fred: "You should stop drinking, Bob, it's destroying your life."
Bob: "You've been drinking since you were 21!"
The second assertion may be true, but it does nothing to address or refute the first assertion. Indeed, it's a way of avoiding the first assertion. Bob may be a drinker, but maybe he's not a problem drinker. And no matter what the case is with Bob, it doesn't mean Fred isn't ruining his life.
Tu quoque reasoning is designed to obfuscate and to create the illusion of false equivalency. It's likewise a form of ad hominem argument, designed to throw attention on the one making an accusation rather than answer for the accusation. As many who lived under communist dictatorships observed -- people like Vaclav Havel -- it's a favorite tactic of demagogues and dictators who use it and its superficial appeal to inspire surrogates to turn on their critics.
Donald Trump is a master of tu quoque reasoning. Indeed, a large part of his campaign was based on it. No matter the claim against him, he turned it into an opportunity to fire back at the media or whoever it was who made the claim, turning everything into a referendum on his critics while never being forced to contend with the substance of their claims.
Today, however, he may have topped himself in this regard, becoming the first American president to use the tactic to defend Russian despotism. Speaking to Fox News in his pre-Super Bowl interview, Trump drew an equivalence between Russia and the United States:
Asked by host Bill O’Reilly if he respected Putin, Trump replied: “I do respect Putin.” Told that Putin is a “killer”, Trump said: “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
Putin, of course, has literally had political enemies killed, rendering Trump's comments here one of the best examples of "А у вас негров линчуют" since Brezhnev died.
When I first heard this last night I thought that it may be a tough one for Trump to easily pull off. Indeed, even some Republican politicians immediately rebuked him for it. But not many. Indeed, during my time on social media today, I've seen far more people nodding at Trump's fallacious little pirouette than criticizing him for it. People who spent eight years accusing anyone who didn't wear an American flag lapel pin of being a Fifth Columnist suddenly eager to engage in a nuanced critique of America's shortcomings. Or eager to argue that Putin may be bad but Obama was worse and Hillary would've opened up American gulags.
This is how a demagogue stays in power.
Yesterday the president left the White House on Marine One unexpectedly. It led to a tweet from the Associated Press which said "Trump has left the White House on Marine One on an unannounced trip, White House has not disclosed his destination."
That phrasing struck me as funny -- where might an erratic president go without telling anyone? --so a minute later I made a couple of stabs at humor. First I tweeted an image from the graphic novel, "Watchmen," in which president Nixon rides in Marine One as an apocalypse looms. Then I tweeted an image from the final episode of the TV show "M*A*S*H" with a view from a helicopter looking down onto the rocks that Hawkeye had arranged to say "Goodbye," except they had been Photoshopped to say "Delete Your Account." I wrote "Trump's view from Marine One." They were not good jokes to be sure, but they were pretty harmless ones.
A little while later, after I was offline for the evening, it was revealed that Trump had left to go to the air base where the remains of Ryan Owens, a Navy SEAL killed in action in Yemen were arriving. I obviously did not know that at the time I made my jokes, but it's not as if it made a difference given that my jokes were pretty benign ones that had nothing to do with the substance of Trump's trip, whatever it was.
A couple of hours later I returned to Twitter to find a dozen or so people with "Deplorable" or "Make America Great Again" in their bios tweeting things at me, NBC, Major League Baseball and places like Fox News and Breitbart to the effect of "NBC must fire the anti-patriot Craig Calcaterra! "Craig Calcaterra hates our troops!" and "Craig Calcaterra must apologize to our fallen troops!" And those were the mild and coherent ones. Many others told me that I deserved to die "a traitor's death" and that someone should take me out and have me shot. I've been on Twitter for a long time, I've seen that stuff and did what I always do when I see it: block users and report accounts for threats of violence. Not that it does any good.
This morning I woke up to news that the president (a) threatened the president of Mexico that he might send troops across the border; (b) insulted the president of Australia, one of our longest standing allies; and (c) trotted out surrogates to put Iran "on notice." Then I read something far more sobering than any of that: reports that the first military raid Trump authorized was an utter debacle of hasty and shoddy planning, leading to unnecessary death and destruction. Including the death of Ryan Owens, the SEAL whose body he flew on Marine One yesterday to welcome home.
But please, folks, tell me how I'm the one who is irresponsible when it comes to our armed forces.
While I keep most of my strictly political writing over here, I write a great deal which touches on politics at NBC and on Twitter. I do not, as the saying goes, "stick to sports." This has been controversial at times.
Sports fans prefer you steer away from politics, at least when the politics deviates from their own. Media companies, like the one that pays my salary, are often wary of it too. NBC is great about it -- they give me a lot of leeway in this regard -- but they'll also crush me like a bug if I ever really step into it and say or do something that reflects poorly on the company. They'll be right to crush me too. I represent them in a very public way. It's a fine line to walk, of course, but I've been walking it for close to a decade now. I may offer some sharp commentary from time to time, but I don't throw bombs or make messes.
Today over at The Ringer, Bryan Curtis writes about how, in Trump's America, sportswriters are increasingly doing what I do and refuse to "stick to sports." Indeed, he declares the end of "The Stick to Sports Era."
I'm not sure about that, but I do very much like his into to the topic, in which he describes the people who have always waded into politics, even before this brave new era:
These days, when a Republican politician does something obnoxious or destructive, we expect them to be met by an advance guard of sportswriters like Craig Calcaterra, Dave Zirin, David Roth, and somebody from Deadspin. You know, the enforcer types.
I've been called a lot of things in my life, but never an "enforcer type."
In other news, if you have yet to look at the page I have dedicated to my adorable kitty cats, it can be found here.
From gag orders which seek to hide science and reason from the populace to executive orders which ignore the input and expertise of the government agencies, to the cruel and capricious decision to predicate political asylum decisions on someone's religion as opposed to their persecution, Donald Trump and his bigoted and immoral advisors have wreaked havoc in their first week in power. With a dozen or so strokes of his pen, Trump has repudiated 241 years of American ideals and values and has abdicated America's position as the world's beacon of liberty, tolerance and opportunity.
Over the next four years it is incumbent upon all Americans and their representatives to fight Trump and his cowardly, selfish, callow and nihilistic world view. That fight will have to take the form of hard and substantive work. Small acts, thankless tasks and incremental progress will be required. It will take years to restore all that has been destroyed, even if it has only taken a week to destroy it.
In light of that, it might be understandable to dismiss the efficacy of symbolic gestures. And to be clear, symbolic gestures are no substitute for substantive action. But symbolism is important too, and to suggest that we must choose between substance and symbolism is to suggest a false choice. A symbolic gesture can inspire and galvanize a substantive opposition to tyranny.
To that end, I propose the following symbolic gesture: Members of Congress who oppose the destructive agenda of Donald Trump -- be they Democrats or Republicans -- should walk out of Trump's first State of the Union Address, tentatively scheduled for late February. Show up, take your seats and then, as soon as Trump begins speaking, stand up and walk out.
Doing so will show the world that, even if our president has no regard for historical norms and American ideals, the rest of us are not idly standing by and accepting it. It will show Trump that he does not, contrary to his belief, have a monopoly on the spotlight. It will also, without question, rattle Trump. He's a narcissist, possibly in a clinical sense, and the temper tantrum he will throw in response to such an act will simultaneously reveal the depths of his insecurity and impotence, while likewise derailing his momentum and, in turn, impeding his destructive agenda.
Some may say that such an act is immature or disrespectful. Nonsense. Walking out of the State of the Union is not unprecedented (see here and here). And a principled stand will not, by damn sight, be the most disrespectful thing which has occurred at a State of the Union Address in recent years. Beyond that, Trump has already done much to damage notions of normalcy and decency in office, so he is not entitled to the deference afforded previous presidents which he does not appear to value and certainly has not earned.
Angry tweets are not going stop this destructive man's agenda. Press releases are routinely ignored. Congress' voting record, thus far, has suggested that official opposition to Trump exercised through normal channels is weak and ineffective. Opponents of Trump have, thus far, showed that they lack the spine to do anything of value.
But this is something that can change that. Congressmen: walk out of the State of the Union Address. Show Trump that he if he is not going to run this country in accordance with its historical ideals, he is not going to receive the same level of deference his predecessors received.
Take a stand now. If not, when in the hell will you?
This evening the president said that, going forward, the United States would prioritize Christians over Muslims when granting asylum to refugees.
Predicating asylum on one's religion, rather than the peril they face, is antithetical to the concept of asylum.
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Announcing that Christians would be given preference over those of a religion that is loathed and feared by many in this country on this, of all days is, for obvious reasons, the sickest and most disgusting of ironies.
This is abhorrent. Trump and the puppeteers who pull his strings are monsters.