Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Trump on his own terms

David Hopkins has an interesting take on the failure of Trump’s presidency:

Regardless of these challenges, the general verdict on Trump among historians and political scientists, reporters and commentators, and most of the Washington political community (including, at least privately, many Republicans) is guaranteed to range from disappointment and mockery to outright declarations that he was the worst president in American history. And there is little reason to expect that the information yet to emerge about the internal operations of the Trump administration will improve his reputation in the future. Instead, it’s far more likely that there are stories still to be told about the events of the last four years that history will find just as damning as today’s public knowledge.

Trump’s defenders will respond that the scholars and journalists who claim the authority to write this history are fatally corrupted by hostile bias. It’s certainly true that these are collectively left-leaning professions, and that the Trump presidency treated both of these groups as political opponents from its earliest days. So what if we tried for a moment to give Trump the benefit of the doubt by attempting to evaluate his presidency as much as possible on its own terms? Did Trump succeed in achieving what he wanted to do, even if it wasn’t what others wanted him to do?


Impeachment, again

I want to revisit my earlier post on impeachment.  I am more inclined to support impeachment today than I was 6 days ago, although it is still far from clear that impeachment makes sense. 

Trump has done great damage to this country by making clear that congressional Republicans will allow a lawless, authoritarian president who is popular with Republican primary voters to get away with almost anything.  Many of them would have let Trump subvert the 2020 election.  Our goal should be to prevent another Republican from using the Trump playbook. 

Given the current alignment of forces in U.S. politics, to prevent another Trump from attacking our democracy our priorities should be 1) to help Democrats win elections by discrediting the Republican party, especially its Trumpiest members, and 2) to discredit the right-wing conspiracy mongers and especially the terrorist groups that have thrived with Trump’s encouragement.  These are the factors that should drive our thinking about impeachment.  (If you think that impeachment should be judged without taking these broader political consequences into account, here’s a question for you:  would you really prefer impeaching Trump and having Democrats lose the House and Senate in 2022 to letting Trump scamper away unimpeached but having Democrats keep control of Congress?)

It is far from clear that impeachment will help safeguard our democracy. 

Will impeaching Trump prevent another Republican authoritarian from using Trump’s playbook?  This seems unlikely.  Impeaching Trump does little to prevent another Republican from using Trump’s playbook.  Punishing Trump because he attempted to overthrow an election in a violent but inept and buffoonish way at the end of his term when many in his party consider him a liability and are ready to be done with him will not deter future authoritarians.  Future authoritarians may have better opportunities to undermine democracy (a closer election, more popular support).  Or they may be better able to exploit opportunities to undermine democracy.  (Think President Cruz or Hawley, both of whom undoubtedly think of themselves – probably rightly – as much more strategic and operationally capable than Trump.  What makes them less likely than Trump to successfully subvert an election is lack of charisma and populist appeal.)

Libertarian David Henderson on Trump

Yesterday, David Henderson, a libertarian economist associated with Hoover and econlib, had a post at econlib suggesting that Trump has been unfairly accused of fomenting violence.  I was going to stick a link to Henderson’s piece in the comments to my earlier post on the libertarian reaction to storming of the Capitol.  But when I looked this morning, the post was gone.  I believe this has happened before with Henderson (I am almost certain this has happened at econlib, I am not sure the author was Henderson, but I believe it was him). 

In any event, the now missing post was captured by my blog reader, and I thought I’d share Henderson’s disingenuous, obtuse, narrow, decontextualized, and legalistic defense of Donald Trump here for the record.  Libertarianism is not an abstract set of ideas that exists outside of partisan politics; libertarians are the intellectual front for the plutocratic wing of the Republican party, and they know who their coalition partners are. They don’t care.

“Today’s violent assault on our Capitol, an effort to subjugate American democracy by mob rule, was fomented by Mr. Trump,” Mattis wrote. “His use of the Presidency to destroy trust in our election and to poison our respect for fellow citizens has been enabled by pseudo political leaders whose names will live in infamy as profiles in cowardice.”

This is from Lara Seligman, “Mattis blames Trump for inciting ‘mob rule’“, Politico, January 6, 2020.

I was playing pickleball Wednesday morning Pacific time and so I didn’t see Trump’s speech. I think I had my priorities right.

As a result, I made a mistake I make too often: I took people’s word for what Trump said.

I wonder if my Hoover colleague Jim Mattis did too.

What I’ve always liked about Ann Althouse, an emerita professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, is that she’s independent: she thinks for herself.

Professor Althouse read the whole transcript, looking for where Trump incited the crowd. She listed the 7 most violence-inciting statements in Trump’s speech. Check the list of 7 and see if you can see “incitement” or “fomenting.” Or possibly she missed something. So go to the transcript and see if you can see something important she missed.

Double standards in policing

Many have noted, correctly, that there is a clear double standard in how the police treated the right-wing protesters at the Capitol on Wednesday and how they treated Black Lives Matter demonstrators this summer.  This is indeed a huge problem and I hope to comment further on it soon.  Here I simply want to point out a second double standard that has not to my knowledge received attention:  the quick, forceful response of legislators to the breakdown of law and order at the Capitol, compared to the generally dilatory efforts at police reform this summer. 

Police reform advocates should press the Democrats hard to move police reform legislation quickly in the new Congress.  As things stand now, there are two standards for police reform.  A strict no-nonsense standard applies when Congress is threatened, a second much more forgiving standard applies when ordinary black folks (and, for that matter, ordinary white folks) are threatened by poor policing.

Libertarians: Hey look, it’s Haley’s comet!

How are libertarian lovers of liberty responding to the assault on democracy and the rule of law that took place in the Capitol Wednesday?

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen speaks out eloquently against Trump’s anti-democratic behavior.  Just kidding!  In a post entitled “That was then, this is now” Cowen reminds us about the terrorist attack on Congress by Puerto Rican nationalists in 1954.  But there is no analogy between a terrorist attack by a politically powerless minority (as bad as that is) and a mob attempting to subvert American democracy at the behest of a sitting President who just lost an election.  No analogy at all.

Cowen also has a post bemoaning the failure of the Capitol police to secure Congress, and a post quibbling over the correct definition of a “coup” and expressing surprise that some Capitol police officers seemed sympathetic to the protesters.  I enjoy a good debate over proper English usage as much as the next guy, but . . . No mention of Trump?  No mention of the Republicans who enable him?  No mention of the role of Fox News?  And being surprised by the behavior of the cops, what can I say?  We saw the sympathy of the police for armed right wing vigilantes this summer.

Impeachment now?

What about impeachment?  There is no question that Congress can impeach Trump for his role in encouraging today’s assault on Congress.  What are the arguments for and against? 

For impeachment:

There is a real possibility that Trump will do something dangerous in the final days of his presidency.

If he is impeached and convicted, he could be barred from running for President again. 

Presumably impeaching him would have some precedential / deterrent value going forward.

Against impeachment:

A politically divisive impeachment would divert attention from Trump’s now oh-so-evident wrongdoing and breath new life into the grievance narrative that motivates him and his base.  It could bolster his political support.  It could also fail.

So what to do?  Removal under the 25th amendment would avoid charges of partisanship (since it would be done by Pence and Trump’s cabinet).  It would hasten Trump’s fall from power within the GOP.  If removal under the 25th amendment is not in the cards, I think Democrats should only impeach if Republican Senators commit to removing him from office and if McConnell agrees to bring the matter to a timely vote.  Arguably, Democrats should insist that some reasonable number of Republicans (say, 50%) agree in advance to removal, to kill the partisan grievance narrative and keep the focus on Trump’s wrongdoing.  If Democrats challenge Republicans to commit to remove Trump from office and they refuse then the failure to impeach and remove would make them complicit in yesterday’s thuggish attack on democracy.  But proceeding with a doomed, democratic impeachment without Senate removal would have no precedential or deterrence value and it would be a political gift to Trump and his base.

Why resign?

Several White House aides and policymakers have resigned in the past 24 hours.  Frankly, I don’t get it. 

First, it’s way too late to salvage your reputation.  Second, at this point you can (arguably) do more to protect your reputation by saying that you are staying to prevent Trump from doing something crazy in the final days of his presidency.

The events at the Capitol

The events at the capitol today are horrifying, and to many of us seem like the natural outcome of Trumpism and the morally degenerate enabling of the Republican party.  But the events today may well end up strengthening our democracy.

I suspect that Trump has badly overplayed his hand.  The images of thugs running loose through the capital will horrify a significant part of Trump’s law and order base.  In the court of public opinion, this will be worse than Charlottesville.  His appeal for peace emphasizing his election grievances will not help much; it was the least he could have done, another Trump hostage video.  

Trump will also lose at least some support from Republican pols.  This was bound to happen anyway, but today’s events will accelerate the process.  It will be interesting to see how Cruz and Hawley react.  I think it is possible, though perhaps not likely, that some Republicans will drop their objections to Biden’s electors.  In any event, this may haunt Trump’s enablers for years.  Let’s hope.

The police preparations were shockingly bad. 

Yes, there is clearly a double standard, with people peacefully protesting police brutality getting treated far more harshly than illegally armed rightwing thugs threatening the peaceful transfer of democratic power.  But at the end of the day, a harsh police response today would have diverted attention and condemnation from Trump and his extremist supporters.

Those – including Biden – who have emphasized that the words of politicians matter have new evidence to support their position.  Trump supporters do not believe the election was rigged because they have independent evidence of vote fraud; they believe it because Trump tells them it was rigged.  They showed up in DC and stormed the capitol at his urging.  McConnell gave a good speech defending democratic procedures tonight, but only after weeks of refusing to challenge Trump’s false election fraud claims.  It is as if he told an energetic, poorly behaved toddler that people can fly by waving their arms, brought the toddler to the top of a tall cliff with no fencing, and then sternly advised the poor child to stay clear of the edge.  Those playing footsie with Trump for short term political advantage need to rethink their priorities and the way they assess probabilities.  In fact, the all-too-common willingness of establishment politicians to accommodate authoritarian outsiders – a main theme in How Democracies Die – may partly reflect the general human inability to think clearly about uncertain events, such as the risk of a democratic collapse.

Status quo bias and vaccine supplies

Here is a simple thought experiment on the use of scarce vaccine supplies.

Suppose that we had tested the Pfizer/Moderna vaccines with one dose per person and discovered that they were 85% effective at preventing covid-19. However, due to an administrative error, we gave some people two doses, and when we analyzed the data it turned out that a two-dose regimen was 95% effective at preventing covid-19.

Only 200 million doses of vaccine will be available over the next six months.

Under these circumstances, the idea that we should switch from our initial vaccination plan of one dose per person to two doses would be regarded as insane. It is clearly better to give 200 million people 85% protection than it is to give 100 million people 95% protection.

Yet today, many people believe that we should vaccinate half as many people using two doses per person, simply because this was our initial plan. This certainly seems like an irrational framing effect, or a status quo bias of some kind, or hidebound, bureaucratic thinking, and it seems likely to lead to thousands of unnecessary deaths and prolong our social and economic misery by months.

Come on people! Let’s think outside the box.

Yes, let’s vaccinate twice as many people against covid-19

I am very sympathetic to Robert Waldmann’s argument that we should give twice as many people one dose of the new Pfizer/Moderna vaccines, at least until supply constraints are eased, instead of following the FDA approved vaccination protocol and giving everyone two doses right from the beginning. What follows is a rough way of thinking about the logic and perhaps the magnitudes involved. Let me emphasize that this is just a finger exercise and I am not an epidemiologist, but with those important caveats I will share my work.

Here are my assumptions. The reproduction number of the virus is currently 1. This means that if behavior, transmissibility, and natural and vaccine acquired immunity are all unchanged, the number of people getting infected each day will remain the same. I assume that there are 300 million people in the United States, 40 million of whom are currently immune due to prior infection, and 260 of whom are susceptible. There are 400,000 new actual infections each day (two times the reported number of cases). These infections lead to 3,000 deaths per day (roughly the current number).