Archive

December 29th

U.S. economic problems are also partly cultural

    The new hot topic is regional economic development, mostly because the victory of Donald Trump drew attention to lagging economic areas such as Appalachia and the Midwest. Bloomberg View columnist Noah Smith recently outlined some economic suggestions, and while I agree with many (not all) of his proposals, I would like to consider an alternative and more culturally oriented perspective.

    The first noteworthy fact about this discussion is its recent flowering. No new information about these regions has come to light, except for the fact that they tilted the Electoral College toward Trump. That suggests we may be blurring two questions, with "How can we help these regions?" becoming a paternalistic "How can we get them to change their voting patterns?" Mississippi and Louisiana, two of America's poorest states, haven't gotten a comparable outburst of new attention, perhaps because they reliably vote Republican in presidential elections.

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The United States might be the next Argentina

    Argentina could have been the United States.

    Like the U.S., it was one of the world's 10 richest countries at the turn of the last century. And also like the U.S., that made it a New World magnet for Old World immigrants. But unlike the U.S., that was as good as it ever got. There was no Argentinian Dream. Just a nearly never-ending nightmare of either falling behind gradually or falling behind suddenly. All of which was self-inflicted.

    Its fundamental problem was how unequal it was. About 300 families controlled most of the land, the economy and the government. Everyone else was just a cog in their beef-and-grain-exporting machine. Or, as the Financial Times' Alan Beattie has put it, Argentina is "what North America might have looked" like "if the South had won the Civil War and gone on to dominate the North." Which is to say that it was a semi-feudal aristocracy dependent on a steady supply of cheap labor.

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December 28th

The first family for sale

    Tacky. There's no other word to describe it.

    Tacky. That adjective best sums up the self-serving behavior exhibited by almost the entire Trump family so far -- father, daughter, and both sons -- all busy finding ever more creative ways to sell themselves off to the highest bidder.

    Donald Trump himself set the pace by refusing to sell off his vast business holdings and place the money in a blind trust, which the Wall Street Journal recommended as the only way to avoid massive conflicts of interest between his old job as businessman and his new role as president.

    Instead, Trump continues to mix the two as president-elect, meeting with business partners from India and the Philippines and continuing to make deals, even while he prepares to take the oath of office. This week, he also met with Mexican mogul Carlos Slim. Did they discuss building a wall along the border or a new Trump Tower in Mexico City? Who knows?

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The first family for sale

    Tacky. There's no other word to describe it.

    Tacky. That adjective best sums up the self-serving behavior exhibited by almost the entire Trump family so far -- father, daughter, and both sons -- all busy finding ever more creative ways to sell themselves off to the highest bidder.

    Donald Trump himself set the pace by refusing to sell off his vast business holdings and place the money in a blind trust, which the Wall Street Journal recommended as the only way to avoid massive conflicts of interest between his old job as businessman and his new role as president.

    Instead, Trump continues to mix the two as president-elect, meeting with business partners from India and the Philippines and continuing to make deals, even while he prepares to take the oath of office. This week, he also met with Mexican mogul Carlos Slim. Did they discuss building a wall along the border or a new Trump Tower in Mexico City? Who knows?

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Terrorists with U.S. arms will be Trump's problem

    Early next year, a group of Lebanese Air Force pilots and support crew will arrive at a U.S. base in Georgia to receive training on the A-29 Super Tucano, a Brazilian-made turboprop that uses aerial firepower to support ground missions. This seems like good news: Lebanon is a plucky little democracy only about a decade removed from a 29-year Syrian occupation and still surrounded by Middle Eastern mayhem.

    Responding to the Lebanese government's pleas for aid in combating Islamic State and other Syrian terrorist groups, the U.S. has this year alone provided it with $220 million in military aid -- including 50 armored personnel carriers and 40 artillery pieces -- and facilitated its purchase of six Super Tucanos. Congress is also giving Beirut $150 million to improve border security. This puts Lebanon on the same tier of aid recipients as Jordan, which has been a stable and loyal ally to the U.S. for years.

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Sizing up Trump's wild-card administration

    I don't think it has sunk in yet just how unpredictable virtually everything in Donald Trump's administration is going to be.

    To begin with, the incoming tweeter-in-chief has taken positions on both sides of many issues. Maybe he has thought through a number of policies and maybe he hasn't, but either way we know almost nothing of his preferences beyond those that appear to be based on instinct (trade deals bad, Putin good).

    And this is only the beginning.

    Recent presidents have been fairly predictable because they were partisan. Their actions, including personnel choices, reflected the views of the majority coalition within their party. Even those White House staffers whom we think of as having close ties to the president (George Stephanopoulos for Bill Clinton, Karl Rove for George W. Bush, David Axelrod and David Plouffe for Barack Obama) had careers as Democratic or Republican campaign or governing professionals before their better-known connection was established. As such, they could be seen as partisan actors, not presidential loyalists, and were part of the process of constraining the president.

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Republicans stand at democracy's crossroads

    We don't know how Donald Trump's presidency will turn out, or what the cost could be to democratic culture and norms. But we know that Trump's capacity for harm will depend only partly on Trump and his aides.

    Enormous power will rest with Republicans in Congress. If the GOP wants to constrain Trump's propaganda, political chaos and end-runs around ethical, constitutional and democratic standards, especially on the domestic front, it can.

    It's far from clear, however, that it will.

    Trump represents an obvious departure from democratic behavior and norms. But what about the GOP? Is the Republican Party still fixed in a democratic orbit, respectful of American political traditions and protective of civil and political rights? Or is its early acquiescence to Trump, following other retrograde motions -- Republican presidents get to appoint justices to the Supreme Court but Democratic presidents don't -- a sign that the party is transitioning into something else?

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On health care, Republicans are about to give Americans more 'skin in the game.' And they're going to hate it.

    For the past eight years, Republicans have had the luxury of opposition, which enables you to blame anything and everything on your opponents without being burdened by the responsibility of coming up with your own solutions or being held accountable when things don't go well. Now, of course, all that is going to change. And nowhere will their new situation be more vividly apparent than in health care, where they are determined to dismantle the Affordable Care Act yet can't seem to agree on what they'll replace it with. However it plays out, the country will get an extremely edifying instruction in conservative values as they relate to health care. And they're probably not going to like what they see.

    But first, here's the latest news from the health-care front, which is that Americans hate the ACA so much that they're signing up for it in droves:

 

    About 6.4 million people have signed up for health insurance next year under the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration said Wednesday, as people rushed to purchase plans regardless of Republican promises that the law will be repealed within months.

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It's Kochs vs. GOP on this tax plan

    In this uncertain world, there are still a few unalterable facts of political life. For example, Republicans always do what Charles and David Koch, the billionaire bankrollers of right-wing politics nationwide, tell them.

    Then again, maybe not. As it happens, the Koch brothers are dead set against the House Republicans' business tax reform plan, yet GOP leaders are pushing it anyway.

    At issue is the proposed destination-based cash flow tax (DBCFT), which despite its eye-glazing name is anything but a tepid idea. To the contrary, it could affect long-standing business models across Corporate America.

    Here's the plan: Instead of today's corporate tax, which charges rates up to 35 percent on worldwide income, adjusted for deductions and loopholes, the DBCFT would impose a flat 20 percent tax only on earnings from sales of output consumed within the United States (with an immediate write-off on capital investment and no deduction for net interest).

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Here's what the N.C. Republican legislative ambush looked like from the inside

    The chants of protesters yelling "You work for us! You work for us!" echoed through the building. Lobbyists scurried, nervously asking legislators whether they knew what was going on. Republicans ducked in and out of conference rooms, saying little and avoiding the press. Democrats like me collected tidbits of information to try to piece together what was going on.

    It was a legislative ambush, executed with painful precision. Here's how it unfolded.

    Last week, outgoing North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, R, called the state's General Assembly into a special, emergency session to fund the relief effort for victims of a recent hurricane and major forest fires. We passed the relief bill and were adjourned.

    Then, minutes later, the Republican leadership of the General Assembly called a surprise, second special session. They had secretly compiled the number of Republican signatures needed for another session, to begin immediately. Even our hyperactive rumor mill hadn't alerted us to this maneuver.

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