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

Let’s make a coronavirus deal?

Latest on the relief negotiations is here.  Short version, Pelosi and Mnuchin are still negotiating over a $1.9 trillion bill; McConnell is floating the idea of a $500 billion dollar bill, but it is far from clear he can or even wants to pass anything.

If Pelosi can get to a deal with Mnuchin, that’s great.  I still think that the House should pass a bill with or without sign off from Mnuchin and challenge Trump and Senate Republicans to pass it.

But I would add now that the House should consider passing a $500 billion bill and calling McConnell’s bluff.  Part of the impetus for hanging tough on a big bill was to limit the ability of Senate Republicans to sabotage a Biden presidency by withholding any further relief (which they would surely do).  But it looks increasingly likely that the Democrats will take the Senate and be able to pass their own bill in January.  Of course this is not guaranteed, but we need to play the probabilities.  If the polling holds up on the Senate, the main aim should be to get through the next 3 months without too much human suffering and economic damage.  $500 billion is not enough, but properly targeted it would be a lot better than nothing.  Passing an inadequate bill would not help the Republicans politically, and it might help the Democrats drive home how intransigent and destructive Republicans are being on coronavirus relief.

Christie, never forget

Chris Christie:

“I believed when I entered the White House grounds, that I had entered a safe zone, due to the testing that I and many others underwent every day,” Mr. Christie said in the statement. “I was wrong. I was wrong not to wear a mask at the Amy Coney Barrett announcement and I was wrong not to wear a mask at my multiple debate prep sessions with the president and the rest of the team.”

So, what should we make of this?  Is it a genuine change of heart after a brush with death, or a convenient time to scurry like a rat off a sinking ship?  And how could Christie believe that safe zone crap?  Did he wear a mask at the grocery store?

Regardless, anyone public figure who failed to oppose Trump should never be trusted or forgiven.  They betrayed us, they betrayed our country, they betrayed the immigrant children separated from their parents, the victims of covid, the people who depend on the ACA for health insurance, black, brown, gay, trans people, Jews and Muslims . . .  It was a choice.

The stimulus negotiations

A good discussion of the current state of play is here.  The short version is Speaker Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin are negotiating over a package of $2 trillion or so, McConnell plans to introduce a very limited $500 billion package that he may or may not actually have votes to pass (he may just be giving his members up for re-election a messaging opportunity), and Trump has declared that he wants Pelosi and Mnuchin to go bigger.

My take is that it is time for Pelosi to call Trump’s bluff.  She should pass a $2 trillion or so package, with or without final sign off from Mnuchin, making a nominal concession or two to Trump, and tell the truth:  “Everyone knows what is going on here.  The Democrats have been trying to get more relief to the American people and the Republicans in the Senate have been obstructing.  President Trump is the leader of the Republican Party.  He says he wants more stimulus.  He needs to show he is a leader and not just a television personality and get this bill through the Senate.”

The only possible downside here is political – passing the bill might benefit Trump and the Republicans.  But the election is the Democrats’ last leverage point until Biden takes office (assuming he does).  That’s a long time to wait, both in terms of individual suffering and aggregate macroeconomic damage.  And if Democrats don’t capture the Senate, there may never be another stimulus bill of any kind.  And it’s not even clear the bill would benefit Trump and the Republicans.  I say do it.

Whitehouse on the Court

The clip by Senator Whitehouse that Daniel Becker posted here is excellent.  For those of you who prefer reading, this issue brief he wrote is also very good:

It turns out that Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have, with remarkable consistency, delivered rulings that advantage the big corporate and special interests that are, in turn, the political lifeblood of the Republican Party. Several of these decisions have been particularly flagrant and notorious: Citizens United v. FECShelby County v. Holder, and Janus v. AFCME. But there are many. Under Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure through the end of October Term 2017-2018, Republican appointees have delivered partisan rulings not three or four times, not even a dozen or two dozen times, but 73 times. Seventy-three decisions favored Republican interests, with no Democratic appointee joining the majority. On the way to this judicial romp, the “Roberts Five” were stunningly cavalier with any doctrine, precedent, or congressional finding that got in their way. . .

I then looked at the 78 cases to see which ones implicated interests associated with the Republican Party. These interests fall into four categories: (1) controlling the political process to benefit conservative candidates and policies; (2) protecting corporations from liability and letting polluters pollute; (3) restricting civil rights and condoning discrimination; and (4) advancing a far-right social agenda. Let’s review these.

First, political control: conservative interests seek to control the political process by giving their corporate, and often secret, big-money benefactors more freedom to spend on elections. This, in turn, helps them drown out opposing voices, manipulate political outcomes and set the agenda in Congress. For proof of this dynamic, look no further than how the Court’s decision in Citizens United proved the death knell for climate change legislation in Congress. Before that fateful decision, which lifted restrictions on corporate spending in candidate elections, Congress had held regular, bipartisan hearings and even votes on legislation to limit the carbon emissions causing climate change. But Citizens United allowed the fossil fuel industry to use its massive money advantage to strike at this bipartisan progress, and it struck hard. The fossil fuel industry set its political forces instantly to work, targeting pro-climate-action candidates, particularly Republicans. Outside spending in 2010’s congressional races increased by more than $200 million over the previous midterm’s levels—a nearly 450 percent increase.[7] Bipartisanship stopped dead.

Second, protection from courts and regulatory oversight: powerful corporate special interests can become accustomed to disproportionate sway in Congress, where they enjoy outsized influence through political spending and lobbying. With government regulators and in federal courtrooms, this type of influence should make no difference. Some regulators are not captured by the industries they oversee and use the power Congress has given them to protect public health and safety. In courtrooms, corporations may find themselves having to turn over documents that reveal corporate malfeasance. They may find themselves having to tell the truth. And they lose their influence advantage; they may even find themselves being treated equally with real people. In response to this corporate frustration, the Roberts Five have made it harder and harder for regulators and juries to hold corporations accountable.

Third, the Roberts Five are making it harder for people to protect their individual rights and civil liberties. In this group of cases, the conservatives reflect an elitist world view that corporations know best; that courts have no business remedying historical discrimination; that views and experiences outside the typically white, typically male, and typically Christian “mainstream” are not worthy of legal protection. Over and over, the Roberts Five have found ways to make it harder to fight age, gender, and race discrimination.

Finally, there are the “base” issues—abortion, guns, religion—that Republicans use to animate their voters. Republicans promise a Supreme Court that will undo reasonable restrictions on gun ownership and protections for women’s reproductive health, and they use this promise to drive turnout in elections. In this group of cases, the Roberts Five have invalidated federal and state laws, acting as a super-legislature to achieve by judicial fiat what Republicans cannot accomplish through the legislative process.

The SCOTUS hearings

Democrats so far have focused on the risk that Amy Coney Barrett poses to the Affordable Care Act.  This is completely understandable as electioneering.  The ACA was one of their best issues in 2018, and it will be again this year.  But . . .

By focusing narrowly on the ACA, the Democrats are missing an opportunity to educate the public more broadly on the role of the Court and the danger posed by a highly conservative and partisan set of Justices.  The Court is a threat to all of the Democrats top legislative priorities and to voting and election reform.  In addition, the ACA challenge the Justices will hear in November is probably not going to succeed, in part because it is extraordinarily weak, and in part because preserving the ACA will defuse any momentum for a political challenge to the conservative majority on the Court, and the Justices know this.

Let them eat bleach

Assuming Trump recovers from the coronavirus and resumes campaigning, this is what I would like to hear from Joe Biden (perhaps at a debate):
Like all Americans, I am glad you recovered and avoided serious damage to your health.  But I also think that you owe an apology to all the Americans who have lost family members to the coronavirus or who are suffering from serious health complications.  The fact is, when they were suffering from this terrible disease, you refused to take it seriously.  You lied about it the health risks.  You encouraged people not to wear masks.  When they got sick, you joked that they should inject themselves with bleach.  You told them to use untested and potentially dangerous medications.
But when you got sick, you took the disease very seriously.  You got access to the most advanced experimental drugs.  You got flown on Marine One to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  Many Americans were told to stay away from hospitals with more serious symptoms than you had; some choked to death at home.
An American President needs to take the lives of all Americans seriously.  You can’t change your past words and actions, but you can apologize for them.  So I am asking you, right now, to apologize directly to Americans who have suffered from this virus for your refusal to take it seriously.
And maybe a word or two on competence:
As President, you had access to all the power and resources of the United States government.  Yet you lacked the minimal competence to keep the White House safe.  How can we trust you to keep this vast country safe?

Donald Boudreaux schools us on libertarian values

Trump Wednesday refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses in November.  He is deliberately undermining confidence in the integrity of mail-in ballot results – mail-in ballots that are expected to favor the Democrats.  According to a report in The Atlantic, the White House is laying plans to actively steal the election:

According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels, the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority. With a justification based on claims of rampant fraud, Trump would ask state legislators to set aside the popular vote and exercise their power to choose a slate of electors directly. The longer Trump succeeds in keeping the vote count in doubt, the more pressure legislators will feel to act before the safe-harbor deadline expires.

Meanwhile, in the face of one of the most severe threats ever to American democracy, great libertarian defender of liberty Donald Boudreaux is busy lamenting the threat to freedom from COVID lockdowns.  Honest:

Is it plausible that government officials have sufficiently accurate and detailed knowledge about how mandated restrictions on socializing will affect the economy, especially over time, such that these officials can be trusted to mandate only those restrictions that produce benefits greater than their costs? Is it plausible that, even if lockdowns in the specific case of Covid-19 pass some cost-benefit test today, the resulting expansion of governments’ powers will not be abused tomorrow? And is it plausible that a people bridled, broken in, and subjugated as never before by the Covid-19 lockdowns will retain enough of a sense of personal responsibility and desire for freedom that they will resist government overreach in the future?

OK, so he’s getting a bit hyperbolic about a policy he disagrees with.  Libertarians do that.  But isn’t he also beating the drum about the threat Trump poses to democracy?  As far as I see, it’s nothing but crickets.

Libertarians wonder why people think they value property rights over democracy and human decency.

China’s climate announcement

Easily lost in the news of the day, from the NYT:

President Xi Jinping of China pledged on Tuesday that his country would adopt much stronger climate targets and achieve what he called “carbon neutrality before 2060.” If realized, the pledges would be crucial in the global fight against climate change.

This may be mostly PR, but it may signal a significant increase in China’s commitment to decarbonization.  We will learn more as details are provided and China’s next 5-year plan is released in 2021.

If this does reflect an increased commitment to decarbonization, it could be as important as the outcome of the U.S. election for the future of the climate, for several reasons:

China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter.  This is (I believe) the first time it has committed to net zero publicly.  A 2050 target would be better than 2060, but a real commitment to hit 2060 would be a huge improvement.

If China moves away from fossil fuels, it may put some pressure on states that participate in its Belt and Road Initiative to scrap plans for new coal fired power plants.  These states have their own agendas and other options, but Chinese pressure would help.

A clear Chinese commitment to clean energy may help persuade Americans who see China as both a military and economic threat and as having relatively competent leadership to prioritize climate policy.

Finally, if China is committed to a green energy transition, this opens the door to formation of a “climate club” that includes the United States, Europe, and China.  Working together, these countries and others could pressure holdouts to reduce their emissions (by imposing tariffs on their exports, for example).  This is critical.  There are many countries in the world that will not voluntarily cut back on their use of fossil fuels.  Asking nicely will not work.  International climate policy needs more stick and less carrot, and switching to a new regime will be much easier if the Chinese are on board.

It’s all on Trump

The Post Office is Trump’s responsibility.  He appointed the Postmaster General.  If he had asked for more funding, he would have gotten it.  If there is any delay in delivering ballots this November, it’s on Trump.
The integrity of the election is on Trump.  He runs the intelligence services and is responsible for preventing foreign interference.  With his leadership, Congress would have provided more funds to help states deal with the disruption caused by COVID-19.  Any delay in counting ballots is on Trump.
The continuing deaths and economic hardship caused by COVID-19 is now on Trump.  It has been 6 months now since it was clear that COVID-19 would kill tens of thousands of people and wreck the economy.  If Trump had led a federal effort to massively ramp up testing capacity, we could be testing 20 million people a day now.  Everyone with COVID would quickly be identified and quarantined.  The epidemic would be over and we could all go back to work and school and ordinary life.  Every death, layoff, and eviction that occurs now on is on him.
The looting and violence in American cities is on Trump.  If he acknowledged the legitimacy of the protests and supported a reasonable police reform bill, the country would come together.  There would be no opportunity for looters or violent counter-protesters.  The frustration, chaos, and violence in our cities is on him.
Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress can’t make Trump do his job, but at this point it doesn’t matter.  He’s President.  It’s all on him.  Call him out.

Is Trump a blip?

Kevin Drum argues that he is:

One of the key questions raised by Donald Trump’s 2016 victory has been whether he represents a new turn in American politics or merely a blip who will be quickly forgotten if he loses in 2020. Over the past four years I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing the evidence about this, and the conclusion I’ve come to is pretty simple: Trump is a blip.

Let’s back up a bit. For a very long time Democrats have believed that demographics were on their side. Republicans are acutely dependent on white voters, and every election cycle the share of white voters declines by a percent or two. Since voters of color largely support Democrats, this would someday make it all but impossible for Republicans to win the presidency.

But when would that day come? The Census Bureau projects that white voters won’t lose their absolute majority until 2044, but the Republican day of reckoning will come long before that. In fact, my take is that it’s already happened. It came in 2008, and ever since then it’s been close to hopeless for a Republican to win the presidency. This makes Donald Trump not a harbinger of things to come, but a final, feral howl of white reactionary politics as a ticket to the White House. He eked out one last victory for the Fox News set not because racism was broadly on the rise, but because of a string of remarkable happenstances: Russian interference; a backlash against eight years of a Black man as president; a woman as his opponent; a last-minute FBI letter; and an unexpected blurp in the Electoral College that placed him in the Oval Office even though he lost the popular vote by millions of votes.

. . . Trump obviously depends on the support of conservative white voters, but even among this group he’ll have a hard time winning because there are simply too many conservative white people who have become disgusted by Trump’s obviously racist appeals.

. . . In the same way that 2016 featured a white backlash against a Black man in the White House, 2020 is almost certain to feature a white backlash against an open racist in the White House. . . .

I agree with Kevin that Trump’s explicit use of racist messages may have reduced his support among decent people who would otherwise vote Republican.  But this suggests only that Trump’s overtly racist appeals may be counterproductive in a country that is slowly becoming more diverse and tolerant.  It does not show that the post-Eisenhower Republican electoral coalition of plutocratic economic conservatives and social conservatives will no longer be competitive if Republicans use less overtly racist messaging, especially given the tilt in the electoral college and the Senate in favor of conservative, rural voters.  Remember that Trump appeared to be highly competitive heading into the 2020 election until the COVID epidemic hit, notwithstanding his overt racism.  It is primarily Trump’s gross mismanagement of the epidemic that has endangered his presidency, not his racism.

I also agree the country is likely to become more progressive and tolerant over time.  The real question is how quickly this will occur, and how the Republican party reacts.  Will the Republican donor class accept some moderation on economic issues?  Will Republican media elites and primary voters allow the party to triangulate towards the center?  (Here is a pessimistic take by Drutman.)  Or can Republicans remain competitive by putting a bit of “compassionate conservative” lipstick on their plutocratic, intolerant pig?  Questions like these will determine how much of a blip Trump turns out to be.  And of course, all this assumes we remain a functioning democracy long enough to find out.