Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Taxonomy of Oligarchs

Rich people in America have the luxury of indulging an astonishing variety of self-destructive fantasies.  The rule of law and the power of voters to throw the rascals out when things turn really bad have, together, helped to insulate America's billionaire fantasists from consequences of their zanier notions.  Fear of the voters has kept Social Security, Medicare, and, recently, Obamacare safe from the lunatics who imagine that these socialist handouts have sapped America's moral fibre and polluted our precious bodily fluids.  The courts, and even the U.S. Department of Justice, have blocked, slowed, or limited the efforts of the White House to abuse its powers to the utmost.  And because their nuttier ideas have never been put into practice, America's oligarchic class -- if I may call it that -- can go on imagining the utopian world that might have been, if only their imprecations had been heeded, safe in the knowledge that liberals stand ready to save capitalism (again) should anything go really wrong.

Thus far, the worst "ideas" of the American oligarchic class have been blissfully free of consequences.  (More specifically, free of consequences for the oligarchs themselves, which is of course what really matters to oligarchs.)

But over the last decade or so, a new fantasy has captured the imaginations of a faction of America's oligarchic class: the notion that American oligarchs can make common cause with the oligarchs of countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and, especially, Vladimir Putin's Russia.   Like all such fever dreams, this one entails a puzzling blindness to certain obvious facts.  And like the flights of fancy preceding it, it will have catastrophic consequences for the oligarchs themselves if seriously pursued.

Once again, it will probably fall to America's liberals to save the imbecilic rich from their own idiocy and malice.  'Twas ever thus.  But for the record, it may be worthwhile to point out the fundamental category error that underlies this particular dangerously wrong idea.

The basic political idea which drives oligarchs of all stripes is that wealth and power go together, and, more importantly, that is is a desirable feature to be sought and preserved in any political system.  And in this, the oligarchs of America and the oligarchs across the sea share values and vision.  But there is a crucial difference apparently overlooked by all to many oligarchs of the American variety.  Namely, that American oligarchs are, with a few exceptions, plutocrats, while the oligarchs they admire, particularly in Putin's Russia, are kleptocrats.  This is a distinction which Americans overlook at their own great peril.

In a plutocracy, money buys power.  Often this is the power to protect one's money, and not infrequently the power to make more.  But the ultimate source of power is wealth obtained in the course of private business.  Now, this wealth may be obtained by shady means, it may involve evading regulations or simply breaking laws.  It may involve lucrative government contracts.  It may involve favorable legislation paid for with an advance of the anticipated proceeds of a desired loophole.  But, on balance, the arrow of causality runs from money to power. 

Kleptocracy is almost exactly the opposite.  Kleptocrats mingle wealth with power in much the same way as plutocrats, but the the arrow of causality is reversed:  power yields wealth.  More specifically, kleptocrats become wealthy by expropriating plutocrats.  Kleptocrats don't create or run businesses - they take yours, either metaphorically or literally at gunpoint. 

Precisely why American oligarchs, plutocrats who uniformly decry the power of government to take their stuff, should imagine that a cadre of individuals whose personal fortunes derive precisely from the power of government to do exactly that, is their natural ally is for the moment a question left open.  Perhaps the kleptocrats' open avarice strikes the plutocrat as less alien than those pesky liberals, always taxing them to give "free stuff" to the undeserving poor.  Or perhaps our plutocrats imagine that the appetites of the kleptocrats can be appeased at an acceptable cost. 

It may be vain to hope, but one can at least wish that American oligarchs would realize that the Russians are coming for their money before it is their turn to sample Russian prison life from the inside or to explore the slimming effects of a diet high in polonium. 

American liberals, for our part, can remind our own faction of the oligarchic class (for there is one) that plutocrats and kleptocrats are not friends but mortal enemies: kleptocrats are predators, and plutocrats are their natural prey,

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Job

Last week, Anthony Scaramucci told CNN that, "[t]here are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this President. That is not their job." Now, I can understand why he believes this.  Since he wasn't hired during the transition, he wasn't invited to attend this:

That's C-SPAN footage of the entire White House senior staff contingent on January 22nd, swearing an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

So let's be clear: saving America from this President is exactly the job that Administration members signed on for.  And it is for their effectiveness in doing that job that history will -- and should -- judge them.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Democracy and Geography

Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by fewer than eleven thousand votes.  She lost Wisconsin by about twenty-two thousand and Pennsylvania by about forty-four thousand.  All told, she lost these states, with 46 electoral votes between them, by fewer than one hundred thousand votes.

At the same time, Hillary Clinton carried California, the state in which I live, with more than four million votes to spare. Which has me asking myself: what the hell am I doing here?

In the American political system, geography matters.  A lot.  The overwhelming majority of our political processes -- federal, state, and local -- are built on a structure of winner-take-all contests within geographic districts.  Consequently, where you live matters as much as who you vote for.

This fact is not politically neutral. Democrats tend to live in overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods, cities, and states.  (The other name for that phenomenon, by the way, is "racial segregation."  But that's a topic for another post.)  In the language of political operatives, Democratic voting power is distributed "inefficiently."

Like most social facts, this one arises from the personal decisions of millions of individuals, each of whom is doing what seems best for themselves and their families, under the circumstances they face.  We live where we find work, where our friends and family live, where we feel safe, where we feel at home.  For the most part, where we live is not, itself, a political statement.

Except that it is.  Because even if we do not chose our neighborhood for political reasons, our choice has definite political consequences.  The personal -- as we must remind ourselves from time to time -- is political.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Necessary Impeachment

It is customary for American Presidents to wait until inauguration day before instigating their first Constitutional crisis.  But Donald Trump is, as we know, no respecter of custom.  And so, almost two months before taking the oath of office, the President-elect has signaled his intention to simply ignore the emoluments clause of the Constitution, along with the entire corpus of federal conflict-of-interest law.

"Emoluments" is a fancy eighteenth century term for, basically, "suitcases full of money," and the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits individuals occupying offices of trust -- such as, for instance, the President -- from receiving "emoluments" from foreign governments.  It embodies the common sense notion that it is probably not a good idea for high-ranking American officials to accept envelopes stuffed with unmarked bills from foreign powers, even if such envelopes are not provably bribes. Better safe than sorry, you know?

In practice, this means that you can preside over a global business empire, or you can be President of the United States, but you cannot do both at the same time. And this potentially entails a degree of personal sacrifice.

Donald Trump, however, is not well acquainted with sacrifice. In fact, as George Stephanopoulos learned, to his visible embarrassment, the President-elect literally does not know the meaning of the word. So it may have come as a surprise to him that he is expected (and, you know, required by law) to forego the opportunity to profit from his greatly enhanced celebrity, at least for the next four years. This is not, apparently, what he signed up for.

And so we have reached an awkward moment in American history, in which it has become apparent that if Donald Trump does assume office, absent a complete turn-around on this question, Congress will have no alternative but to remove him.

This is not a partisan question.  It is Republicans in the House who will need to bring articles of impeachment against the President, and the votes of Republican Senators will be needed to remove him from office.  His successor, of course, will be Vice-President-elect Mike Pence, a very, very conservative Republican. This is not about "reversing" the outcome of the election.

It is merely the minimum required of anyone who -- like all members of Congress -- swears an oath to uphold and defend the U.S. Constitution.  It is, simply, necessary.    

Monday, November 14, 2016

Tentacles! Flashy tentacles!

"And here's a handy rule: don't go for the flashy tentacles just because they're waving 'em about trying to get attention."

-- Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Xander Harris, explaining how to cover the Trump administration to a naive Washington press corps.

Imagine this: You've just won a presidential election by railing against the DC establishment, including the leadership of your own party. You've drawn crucial support from voters who see you as a walking, talking "F-you!" to the status quo, as "none of the above" in a hand-tailored suit. But you want to appoint the leader of the GOP establishment -- the chairman of the Republican National Committee -- as your White House Chief of Staff. Yet you want the press to keep writing about what an outrageous guy you are, because that's how you win. What do you do?

On Sunday, Donald Trump, continuing to teach his master class in leading-the-media-around-by-the-nose, showed us his solution: you appoint the Executive Chairman of Breitbart News to an important-sounding, made-up "strategy" job at the same time. And, demonstrating that it has learned nothing over the past year, the press has done exactly as the Trump team had hoped, exploding with outrage about something that could not matter less, while completely ignoring the bit of the story with actual consequences.

So what is this "Chief of Staff" job anyway? Here's one way to think about it. The U.S. Executive Branch is probably the world's largest bureaucracy but, more importantly, it is also among the most rigidly formalized. The process of nailing down an actual Presidential decision is very, very structured -- and it's structured around the flow of papers to and from the President's desk. Which pieces of paper the President happens to sign his name to has enormous consequences, up to and including life-and-death for millions of individuals worldwide. Paper, in the White House, is a very big deal. And it's the White House Chief of Staff who decides which pieces of paper reach the President's desk, and which do not. It is as simple, and as enormous, as it sounds.

Another way of looking at the Chief of Staff's job is that he decides which Presidential decisions are meant to be taken seriously and which are to be ignored. (Apparently, an important part of H.R. Haldeman's job was to ignore some of Richard Nixon's nuttier directives.) The vast organizational machinery involved in actually implementing a Presidential decision does not swing into action unless and until the Chief of Staff causes it to do so. And given the... um... whimsical nature of our current President-elect's policy preferences, the Chief of Staff's ability to decide which Presidential whims are translated into real-world action constitutes immense influence over America's future direction.

So, the radical change-agent has hired the Republican establishment to run the Executive Branch. By all means, let's talk about Breitbart some more.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Two Rants

While writing something else for this blog, I stumbled on a striking juxtaposition:  two rants -- one from a film, one from a television show -- on YouTube.  They are, in one sense, exactly the same: they both feature fictional television newsmen expressing dissatisfaction with the state of the world and with the news media's representation of that world.  Yet they are completely different.  

I won't say any more; just watch.  

Albert Finney Peter Finch, Network (1976):

Jeff Daniels The Newsroom (Episode 1.1, 2012): 

Compare and contrast.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The "None of the Above" Candidate

Americans love to joke about voting for "none of the above."  Sometimes, we even put it right on our ballots, as a write-in candidate.  Ha ha.  Take that, The Establishment!

But the Recent Unpleasantness has highlighted a variation on this theme: the major party protest candidate.  That is, a major party candidate who convinces a meaningful number of voters that "a vote for me is a vote for none-of-the-above."

Tuesday's exit polls yield some intriguing evidence that Donald Trump's ability to position himself as the none-of-the-above candidate in the minds of some voters played a material role in his success. Specifically, voters expressing dissatisfaction with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump opted for Trump by huge margins.

According to exit polls reported by CNN:
  • 18% of voters held negative opinions of both Clinton and Trump. Those individuals voted for Trump by a margin of 20 points (49% to 29%).
  • 14% of voters said that neither Clinton nor Trump was "qualified" to be President. They voted for Trump by a 54 point margin (69% to 15%). 
  • 14% of voters said that neither Clinton nor Trump had the "temperament" to be President. They voted for Trump by a 59 point margin (71% to 12%).
This is an extremely clever piece of electoral judo: it turns thinking a candidate unfit for public office  into a reason to vote for them (rather than, say, flipping a coin or simply not voting at all).  A candidate who successfully positions themselves as the "to hell with all of you" option wins by stoking dissatisfaction with all of the candidates including themselves.

Of course, it's a con.  A vote for Donald Trump turns out to have been a vote for Donald Trump. Ha ha. Take that, America!