New at Pychotronic Review: A*P*E: Meta-Film of a Fine Vintage.
I just read Terry Eagleton‘s Reason, Faith, and Revolution. It is largely an attack on the atheism books by Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great). In his typically sardonic manner, Eagleton refers to the two authors as a single entity he calls Ditchkins. The book is, like all of …View full post
We seem to have had a couple of good days this week regarding politics. Of course, a large part of this is due to my greatly reduced expectations. Obama’s slap with regards to the TPP was good news, but there is little doubt that the Senate will eventually approve fast-track authority for the TPP. And …View full post
In 1923, the great novelist Norman Mailer was born. It is kind of sad that he is remembered today more for being an egotistical jerk than a great artist. And indeed, he did have that whole Ernest Hemingway thing going on. But my take on him is that it was just his way of dealing …View full post
On Thursday, Paul Krugman did his usual music post a day ahead, Friday Night Music, Early Edition: San Fermin. He wrote, “Yes, I know it’s Thursday — but they have a new record just out…” Well, I had to check out San Fermin. But I was skeptical. Krugman has very definable taste. There is probably …View full post
Mark Thoma wrote a great article over at CBS Money Watch, Yes, Growth Can Be Boosted Without Raising the Deficit. But I think it is critical to understand why this isn’t generally a self-evident point. Conservatives always claim that their problem with government action has to do with the budget deficit. Despite the fact that …View full post
“This could have been brought to our attention yesterday.” That was Jonathan Chait’s bottom line in a great article today, Debt Scolds: Pay No Attention to the Falling Deficit! You see, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has revised its estimate of the federal deficit this year. Before the year started, the CBO estimated that the …View full post
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We all know about the need to make trade-offs in budgeting, most of us have to do it on a regular basis in our daily lives. But what about the trade-offs for the federal government? Arguably there is no need for trade-offs right now. Both interest rates and inflation are at low levels, so it is not obvious that there is any problem with larger deficits, but folks in both parties are fixated on the need to run low budget deficits or even to have balanced budgets, so these politics dictate the need for trade-offs.
In this context, it is worth making some comparisons as the Republicans seem prepared to slash a number of relatively low cost programs that have received considerable visibility. At the top of this list would be federal funding for Legal Services, a program that has provided legal assistance to low income people for decades. This program provides lawyers for people facing foreclosures or evictions, for people who need help with a divorce or will, or for many other situations that would typically require the assistance of a lawyer. The appropriation last year came to $375 million, or 0.011 percent of the federal budget.
Another item on the chopping block is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). CPB helps fund National Public Radio as well as public television stations around the country. It got $445 million from the federal government last year or 0.013 percent of total spending.
Then there is the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). The NEA supports a variety of education and cultural events around the country. It got just under $150 million last year or 0.004 percent of the total budget. There are a number of other small programs also on the chopping block, including AmeriCorps and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.
It is interesting to compare the spending of these programs that face cuts or may be eliminated altogether with spending of security for President Trump and his family. In the past, presidents have generally tried to limit their own travel and that of their families so as not to create large security bills for the country. Apparently, this is not a concern of President Trump.
Unlike past presidents, he has requested Secret Service protection for his adult children. Given their travel habits running President Trump’s business, this is likely to be a considerable expense for the government. For example, the Washington Post reported that one trip to Uruguay by Eric Trump to open a hotel there cost the government almost $100,000 in security expenses. In addition, Trump’s decision to take his weekends at his golf club in Florida, rather the White House or Camp David, costs us more than $3 million a shot. And the decision by Melania Trump to stay in New York with her son is apparently costing taxpayers close to $2 million a day. [Over $700 million per year. -FM]
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Mother Nature Network published an interesting little article some time ago, Kooky Cartwheeling Spider Among Bizarre New Species. It seems that 18,000 recently discovered species were given official names this last year. And so the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at State University of New York (SUNY) decided to highlight ten of these creatures. Think about that for a moment. Humans have spent thousands of years cataloging different animal species, yet we can still be discovering tens of thousands of them each year. According to the article, there are still 10 million yet to be discovered. This number is also the estimate of the total number of species on the earth. Thus far, humans have only been able to catalog about 1.5 million species.
The group of creatures include some things that demand a rewrite of Hamlet, “There are more things on earth than are dreamt of in your worst nightmares.” Take the bone house wasp. Although disturbing, we must admit that she is a hell of a good mother. She creates a nest in a hollow stem of a plant. At the bottom, she lays her eggs. On top of it, she puts a dead spider for the hungry baby wasps, once they are born. That’s actually rather nice of the mother in regard to the spider — paralyzing, and having them eaten alive seems a much more common approach in the wild. The creepy part comes when the mother wasp piles dead ants on the very top. This is done to ward off predators because of the smell of the ants. So think about a nursery with rotting corpses piled by the door to keep others away. Effective, loving, and very creepy!
For the creationists out there, there is the Limnonectes larvaepartus. It is a frog from Indonesia that gives birth to live tadpoles. That’s interesting because most frogs lay eggs and a few frogs give birth to baby frogs. This new frog is what we might call “the missing link.” But as we know from creationist apologetics, there will always be “holes” in the diversity of life. Nothing will convince them because they cannot be convinced. They “know” the truth and are only looking for things that justify what they already “know.”
Another of the new species is Torquigener albomaculosu, a kind of pufferfish. The male of this species attract females by creating beautiful designs in the sand. That reminds me of the following “Effective Catcalls” cartoon. Females really do appreciate a man who can provide a nice home.
The sad thing about all the species we are discovering is that plants and animals are going extinct at an even faster rate. Of course, life forms are always going extinct — it is the nature of life. But it is hard not to figure that we are largely responsible for the fast rate. Thus far, we have done this by destroying habitat, but as time goes on, the climate forcing is going to be a much bigger — even catastrophic thing.
Still, the amazing diversity of life on the earth is staggering. At the same time, mama wasps are just like human mothers in all they do to protect their young. And I know that a lot of people will dismiss what the wasp does as just instinct. But our great brains don’t seem to change the overall nature of things. We humans are pre-programmed to think that human babies are cute and worth protecting. We may obscure that with ideas like “feeling” and “choice.” But I think that’s all rubbish. We are all on autopilot, we just have these big brains that trick us into thinking we are in control.
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Donald Trump, the man who positioned himself as the common man’s shield against Wall Street, signed a series of orders today calling for reviews or rollbacks of financial regulations. He did so after meeting with some friendly helpers.
Here’s how CNBC described the crowd of Wall Street CEOs Trump received, before he ordered a review of both the Dodd-Frank Act and the fiduciary rule requiring investment advisors to act in their clients’ interests:
“Trump also will meet at the White House with leading CEOs, including JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, and BlackRock’s Larry Fink.”
Leading the way for this assortment of populist heroes will be former Goldman honcho Gary Cohn, now Trump’s chief economic advisor.
Dimon, Schwarzman, Fink and Cohn collectively represent a rogues gallery of the creeps most responsible for the 2008 crash. It would be hard to put together a group of people less sympathetic to the non-wealthy.
Trump’s approach to Wall Street is in sharp contrast to his tough-talking stances on terrorism. He talks a big game when slamming the door on penniless refugees, but curls up like a beach weakling around guys who have more money than he does.
Extreme Vetting, But Not for Banks
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This morning I was shocked to read something that Paul Krugman wrote, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.)” Krugman knows better, of course. I’ve long been impressed with just how few typos creep into his work — even when he’s writing a lot. So much the better to use him as an example. I don’t want to put him or anyone down for this mistake. And he didn’t make this mistake out of ignorance, I’m sure. But this construct of misplacing a period in relationship to a closing parenthesis mark drives me crazy!
The truth is, this is easy. I really don’t understand why so many people have trouble with it. But trust me: I work with a lot of writers and a lot of them have trouble with it. I wonder if it is an American thing. Last year, I wrote, My Job Description Requires I Be Wrong About Quotation Marks. In England, periods go before or after an ending quotation mark based upon whether the period belongs to quoted material. In American English, we always throw the period before the quotation mark. (I hate this too, but I’ve given up the fight.)
Here’s an example from Kristen McHenry’s poem “Museum“ in her book, The Goatfish Alphabet. Since I don’t want to deal with quotes within quotes, I’ll put this in boxes. Here is the sentence as we would typeset it in America:
But that’s wrong. The line does not end with a period. Here is how it would be typeset in Britain:
So this madness with periods and quotation marks rubs off and apparently makes people think the same is true of parentheses marks. But it isn’t! For whatever reason, we here in America care about this. And like I said: it is easy. It is, in fact, easier than with quotation marks because the intent is clearer.
Sentences Must Stop
Sentences need a stop: usually a period. This is what defines them as sentences. So in Krugman’s example above, he needs a period after the final parenthesis. He could have written it this way, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives.).” But that parenthetical comment hardly needs its own stop. So better would have been, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives).”
Personally, I would have rendered it, “Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton. (Shhh; don’t tell conservatives!)” And having read Krugman for a decade, I suspect that’s what he meant to write.
Dealing With Parentheses and Punctuation
Here are my rules for dealing with parentheses:
- If a parenthetical comment is not a full sentence, treat it as you would a comment between commas.
- If a parenthetical comment is a full sentence, treat it as such:
- Capitalize the first word
- End it with a stop (period, question mark, or exclamation mark).
- If a full sentence parenthetical comment appears at the end of a sentence, it probably belongs outside the sentence.
But if you ever get confused about whether you need a period or other stop outside a parenthesis, ask yourself, “Is this the end of the sentence?” Remove the parenthetical comment if necessary. It should be obvious then. After you properly end your sentence, then you can put your parenthetical comment back with or without its own stop.
 I read a lot of poetry and this is one of my all time favorite poems. It just happens to be written by a long-time friend. When I first read it, I wrote her a thousand-word email message gushing about it. There’s more meaning and beauty in it than in the vast majority of novels.
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The Wall Street Journal reports that the Trump administration’s budget planning assumes very high economic growth over the next decade — between 3 and 3.5 percent annually. How was this number arrived at? Basically, they worked backwards, assuming the growth they needed to make their budget numbers add up. Credibility! …
The claimed returns to Trumpnomics are close to the highest growth rates we’ve seen under any modern administration. Real GDP grew 3.4 percent annually under Reagan; it grew 3.7 percent annually under Clinton (shhh — don’t tell conservatives). But there are fundamental reasons to believe that such growth is unlikely to happen now.
First, demography: Reagan took office with baby boomers — and women — still entering the work force; these days baby boomers are leaving. …
Just on demography alone, then, you’d expect growth to be around a percentage point lower than it was under Reagan.
Furthermore, while Trump did not, in fact, inherit a mess, both Reagan and Clinton did — in the narrow sense that both came into office amid depressed economies, with unemployment above 7 percent…
This meant a substantial amount of slack to be taken up when the economy returned to full employment. Rough calculation: 2 points of excess unemployment means 4 percent output gap under Okun’s Law, which means 0.5 percentage points of extra growth over an 8-year period.
So even if you (wrongly) give Reagan policies credit for the business cycle recovery after 1982, and believe (wrongly) that Trumponomics is going to do wonderful things for incentives a la Reagan, you should still be expecting growth of 2 percent or under.
Trump’s Rosy Scenario
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Mary Jo White, whose tenure as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Obama bitterly disappointed those who hoped she would aggressively enforce banking laws, is rejoining the corporate defense team at Debevoise & Plimpton, marking her sixth trip through the revolving door between various government jobs and the white-collar defense law firm she calls home.
Debevoise represents numerous major financial institutions under federal investigation, and White will now help those corporate clients manage their legal exposure.
White got the call to return to Debevoise on Inauguration Day, her last day at the SEC. As Debevoise presiding partner Michael Blair told the Wall Street Journal, “We had been waiting to make that phone call for several years.”
This latest trip through the revolving door is particularly disturbing because White declared in ethics disclosure forms before becoming SEC chair that she was retiring from her partnership at Debevoise, receiving a lump sum retirement payment of over $2 million. Instead of staying retired, she immediately went back to Debevoise after her government service ended, pocketing the money.
It is not, however, surprising…
Under White, the SEC failed to monitor stock buybacks to prevent market manipulation. It failed to stop the epidemic of granting waivers to companies automatically banned from securities activities after settling cases of civil and criminal wrongdoing. White stood with Republican commissioners even as Democratic colleagues tried to stop those waivers from being granted. In a troubling continuance of regulatory capture at the agency, White hired a senior Goldman Sachs attorney as the SEC chief of staff.
Though White made a big show of fighting to force companies to admit guilt in any settlement, a break from past practice, in reality this tool was rarely used. According to a letter from Senator Elizabeth Warren, of 520 settlements from June 2013 to September 2014, only 19 required admissions of guilt. And in the majority of those cases, the SEC only asked for a broad admission of the facts of the case, rather than admissions of specific securities violations. In one example, the SEC got JPMorgan Chase to admit to breaking a law in 2013, but it wouldn’t say which one.
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A major theme of my book, perhaps the central one, is that a fixation on all sides with fleeting short-term events obscured the breadth and depth of the transformative change wrought by the Obama administration. Large and even revolutionary policy changes received little attention because they were not attached to whatever political drama had captured the attention of the political media, and those “game-changing” dramas, in turn, frequently had little or no ultimate importance.
That same fixation with immediacy has continued to color our perception of Obama since he departed. Donald Trump’s election is the most compelling and immediate story in American politics, and correctly so, but its drama has caused Obama’s presidency to be refracted through the lens of Trump. What does Trump tell us about Obama? What does Obama tell us about Trump? The easy assumption since November has been that Trump would rapidly erase Obama’s legacy. “Obama’s legacy is toast,” gloated conservative commentators. That conclusion, reached immediately in the wake of the election, has continued to form the entirety of right-wing thought about Obama. Trump won, ergo, everything Obama did is gone, close the books…
Obama’s measures to prevent a second Great Depression after the 2008 financial crisis — the stimulus, the stress tests of the banks, and auto bailout — are safe from Trump by definition. The Dodd-Frank financial reforms will be temporarily weakened through lax enforcement, just as labor, environmental, campaign, and other regulations conservatives disapprove of are typically weakened during Republican administrations. But Republicans do not have anywhere close to the 60 votes they need to wipe Dodd-Frank off the books. Obama’s education reforms are likely safe as well.
But, as I argued in the book, both the green-energy revolution that Obama helped set out, and the international diplomatic consensus in favor of limiting climate change he helped assemble have a life of their own. Rather than use Trump’s election as an excuse to renege on their own commitments, world leaders insisted after the election their agreement was irreversible. Trump will slow down the pace of the green-energy transformation, but he has neither the inclination nor the ability to destroy the changes of the last eight years. Over the last few weeks, two of the largest coal-fired power plants have announced plans to shut down…
The old conservative mental image of green energy as an unaffordable hippie daydream is hopelessly quaint, in a world where the cost of solar has plunged 85 percent, and wind 66 percent, since the stimulus, and these technologies now produce energy for less than coal. Since 2008, wind power has more than quadrupled, and solar-power capacity has increased 4,000 percent.
Battery-storage technology is a crucial factor to the greening of both the electric power sector and the transportation sector. Affordable batteries are the key component to making electric cars cost-competitive with the gasoline-powered kind. And battery storage is an enormous factor in allowing renewable energy to completely displace fossil fuels. Solar and wind power can already generate electricity more cheaply than coal, but battery storage is necessary for those sources to replace the need for fossil-fuel power when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. The price of advanced batteries has fallen by more than half in the last three years alone…
And the Republican notion that subsidizing an infant industry violates the principles of a free economy, and amounts to “crony capitalism,” has been utterly abandoned in the face of an administration where the president uses his office for self-enrichment and White House employees literally use their office to gin up customers for his family business.
And then there is Obamacare repeal, the Holy Grail of the quest to erase Obama’s legacy. My book argues that Obamacare will be difficult to repeal — by bringing 20 million previously uninsured Americans into the system, Republicans can no longer ignore them. Events since its publication have borne out that analysis. Republicans have promised to replace the law with a plan that has lower deductibles and premiums and better choices. A plan like that would require spending more money than Obamacare, and Republicans are coming face-to-face with the reality that there’s no mechanism to finance such a plan that their party could support… Financing the alternative plan is the largest obstacle facing Republicans, but hardly the only one. There are innumerable problems that must be resolved — whether to keep the Medicaid expansion, whether to defund Planned Parenthood, whether to repeal Obamacare’s taxes, and on and on. Republicans have to find near unanimity on every single one of them in order to pass a bill out of both chambers of Congress. They have resolved none of them so far.
Republicans in Congress have made no more progress in developing a partywide alternative in the three and a half months since the election than they made in the seven years before that. Their only options are to keep the current system, or some version thereof, or inflict cruelty upon millions and massive disruption to an industry that accounts for a fifth of the economy. “I would say it’s not that easy to repeal it,” concedes Representative Peter King. “The entire repeal is in mortal danger,” admits Representative Trent Franks.
Republican messaging heavily emphasized the notion that Obama governed largely through the issuing of executive orders, which supposedly left his agenda vulnerable to a quick reversal. Trump has illustrated how fallacious that notion was. The new president has issued a flurry of executive orders, but — with the exception of the immigration order, which was a fiasco — these orders have mostly been symbolic vehicles for communicating goals, rather than actual policy changes.
The notion that Obama’s presidency could and would be erased with a few strokes of the pen was a form of Republican propaganda that Republicans themselves came to believe. Conservatives took Trump’s grandiose rhetoric about repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something terrific, or bringing back coal jobs, at face value because they wanted to believe it. (Many despondent liberals yielded to the same conclusion out of characteristic fatalism.) But one of the lessons gained from a close study of Obama’s presidency, or any presidency, is that governing is hard. The reforms his domestic policies have wrought do not come easy. Even a highly competent Republican presidency would have difficulty unwinding them. And Trump has shown no signs so far of being even a minimally competent president. The expectation of a rapid erasure of Obama’s presidency looks like — to pick a cliché I read somewhere — hubris dashed against the sharp rocks of reality.
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Deep uncertainty and serious divisions within the Republican coalition about the way forward on Obamacare have surfaced in the new Congress, and they’ve put the future of repeal and replace in doubt.
It’s become evident that there is little GOP unity on how much a replacement plan should cost, how to pay for it, whether the Medicaid expansion should be rolled back, or how to fix the individual markets.
Furthermore, there is no evident agreement even on extremely broad questions such as, “What should the goals of the GOP’s replacement plan be?”
Accordingly, many Republicans in both the House and Senate are increasingly fearful about moving to roll back Obamacare too quickly when so little is settled about what comes after it. And their problems are compounded by the fact that while a reasonably comprehensive repeal bill could be rammed through with just 50 Senate votes plus Vice President Mike Pence, a serious replacement bill would need 60 Senate votes, at least eight of which would have to come from Democrats.
It is not impossible that President Trump and the Republican Party will overcome all these problems. But to do so, they will have to come up with consensus answers to these five very serious unsettled questions.
1) What is the goal here? …
2) What will they do about money? …
3) What’s to be done with Medicaid? …
4) How will they try to make the individual markets work better? …
5) Just how committed are they to this thing, anyway?
The 5 Biggest Disagreements Republicans Have on Obamacare
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Most people think that President Richard Nixon was brought down by Bernstein and Woodward — those intrepid reporters at The Washington Post. They weren’t the only reporters on the story, so that’s a simplification. But the truth is that it wasn’t any group of reporters who caused Nixon to resign from the presidency. If you had to pick a man, it would be Mark Felt — better known as Deep Throat. He had real power, which he used brilliantly. And his reason for going after the president tells us a lot about the political climate that we now live in.
In 1972, Mark Felt was Associate Director of the FBI. Although his motives in All the President’s Men were claimed to be patriotic, his actual allegiance was to the FBI itself. Felt didn’t like what he saw as meddling in the agency by the Nixon administration. He was almost 60 years old when he started leaking information, so it’s hard to see him as the idealistic leaker that Chelsea Manning was. If I were Donald Trump, I’d be afraid.
Let’s remember what brought down President Nixon. It wasn’t the break-in of the DNC office at the Watergate complex. That would have been pathetic enough a thing. He was brought down because of his part in trying to cover-up this second-rate crime. We know that presidents are involved with far worse crimes all the time. Why didn’t Ronald Reagan and George H W Bush get indicted about the far worse crimes involved in the Iran-Contra affair? Because the bureaucratic infrastructure wasn’t out to get them. Indeed, both men were protected by Oliver North.
Trump’s Antagonizes the Powerful
The Trump administration has gone out of its way to antagonize most of the US government’s bureaucratic infrastructure. That’s especially true of the most dangerous part of it: the intelligence community, which has show little reluctance to use its power. I wonder if Michael Flynn wouldn’t still be Trump’s National Security Advisor if it weren’t for the intelligence community’s distaste for Trump and his minions.
The truth is that I doubt one could be President of the United State without commonly breaking the law. And even if it were possible, Trump would not be the president who managed the feat. In fact, it takes no power of imagination to substitute Trump for Nixon when he said, “When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
YouTube Video: Nixon When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal
So it seems certain that the Trump administration will break the law. Trump seems to think that the president is a dictator. And there are thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of government officials who would be thrilled to get rid of him. Add to that the fact that the Republican Party itself would be happy to get rid of Trump — so long as the alternative would be Mike Pence. And you end up with a very dangerous situation for Donald Trump.
Trump Doesn’t Have Much Power
I’m not saying that Trump will go away any time soon. For one thing, he and his staff are so incompetent that it’s possible they won’t be able to get enough done to break any laws. It may just be four long years of embarrassing tweets and nothing more — other than signing every legislative wet dream the Republicans in Congress have ever had.
But Trump doesn’t seem much interested in wielding real power. His constant boasting show that he’s more interested in looking tough than actually being it. And his idea of looking tough is that of a third grade boy. The truth is that if you lead a country that has a military roughly the size of all the other countries combined, no one would question your toughness. Trump’s boasts seem to indicate a kind of insecurity on his own part.
Trump hasn’t made friends with old enemies. The Russians have the same relationship with us now as they ever did. But Trump has made enemies he didn’t need to. And those enemies could be his ultimate downfall.
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