Category Archives: opinion

George Will on What is Conservative?

Over the years, I watched as US political actors claimed to be “re-defining conservatism”.  What have they been dithering about?

The first thing you need to understand about this is that American conservatism is different than European conservatism. Europe’s conservatives historically have protected traditional interests that were vested in ruling groups. They are suspicious of change and nostalgic for old ways to impose order. In the old days, American conservatives were not that different. But things changed.

How?  Going back to the 1980’s certain conservatives made it their mission to persuade the world that conservatism is about limited government and free markets. They argued that this was the “right answer” to maximizing social welfare because government could not be trusted. Individuals could be trusted on their own to go about their business. We can call that pursuing enlightened self-interest. Or we might call it pursuing happiness (a phrase from the Declaration of Independence).

The folks who now are labeled progressives were horrified. In their view, society was in need of reform because powerful self-interested institutions (like big companies) damaged social welfare (for example by polluting): Only powerful government, constrained by values, could contend with that sort of problem. And advocating for no government or limited government boiled down to playing the stooge for private actors who had no respect for the public good. To make government stronger, progressives have appealed to disenfranchised voters to stand up for themselves FDR did that successfully. You might say that Jimmy Carter was less successful. And you might argue that Bil Clinton deviated from that point of view. He was more the crafty deal maker, or chameleon, looking either like a conservative or a progressive as he felt the situation required.

George Will has been one of the conservative pundits who pushed this form of conservatism. To his credit, George has not wavered from it. And George makes an interesting point in his new book. The conservative intellectual adventure has an argument to make about how society should look. The progressive intellectual adventure has its argument as well. And that tension between the two views is not necessarily a bad thing.

That sounds nice. But there is a problem. To gain power, conservatives have pitched a view of the world that ignores a good chunk of reality. So Ronald Reagan pitched that lowering taxes would actually increase government revenue (the so called Laffer Curve): And now Donald Trump pitches that immigrants cause crime  and are not loyal Americans.

Progressives argue that they have a more realistic understanding of how society works. But in fact, the policies embraced by the Democratic Party are essentially the same as those developed in the 1930’s, There is little recognition that society has changed and is changing ever faster. For example, labor policy focusing on blue collar worker rights might need to take into account that the whole idea of “work” is being re-defined by automation.

So I am a bit less than thrilled by George’s political philosophy. Why? Because it embraces gridlock when we need ways to move critical issues beyond gridlock. Like providing a more affordable health care system and dealing with climate change and better managing world affairs via diplomacy.

The bottom line is that building trust is not as simple as George would have it. There is no reason to trust private self-interest more than concerted majority rule as a rule. Government that is formed by majorities that are inspired by worthy goals can be trusted to work towards achieving those goals. So Lincoln, for example, believed in strong and active government to invest in infrastructure building. Why? Because there was no other way to get that job done.

The problem, in my hunble view, is that conservatives and progressives do not offer a message that is sufficiently future oriented. The conservative chant to “trust markets” is long in the tooth. No one wants to abandon markets, but we have seen too clearly what abdicating  policy thinking to markets means. The progressive chant to respect rights is also long in the tooth. No one wants a return to fascism, but we see that obsessing on individual rights clouds our thinking about getting stuff done.

What do you think?


Behind the Curtain in Trumpland

As Yogi Bera would say, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Donald Trump has captured the attention of media with absurd, incendiary, racist comments. This ha lots of people scratching their heads.

Matt Yglesius, however, points out for Vox that this is “for show”. The Trump agenda is more serious  He writes

It’s not exactly that the Trump Show is fake and (Chief of Staff) Mulvaney’s operation is the real government, but it’s impossible to understand why the Trump Show we see on stage works without appreciating what’s happening behind the scenes and who benefits from it.

According to Yglesius, that agenda is to benefit America’s super rich (the plutocrats). Matt rolls out this interesting tidbit in support of his argument. The white shoe law firm of Wachtell Lipton put out a curious memo to its clients

The memo made the case to clients that Wachtell’s expertise in regulatory compliance and white-collar defense is still important, even though many buyers of legal services may be inclined to think that rich companies don’t much need lawyers anymore. That’s because under Trump there’s been a “significant drop over the past two years in both the number of white-collar prosecutions and the scale of corporate fines and penalties.”

In other words, Trumpism is essentially crony capitalism disguised by a veneer of populist blow hardism. And whatever the Trump Administration is doing, it is not governance as the term has traditionally been understood. You might call it “regulatory capture on steroids”.

We shall see whether this is just a phase. Whether in 2020, voters throw the rascals out, and the country goes back to “normal”. I fear, however, that even if Trump is kicked out, and even if the dems sweep the board in Washington that the above sort of mendacity will continue to plague the  Republican Party.  You might call it the poisoned chalice o f the American conservative movement.

Can we see a way forward on that issue? It would require de-coupling the Republican Party coalition. We are not likely to get rid of the loony fringe  elements that form one part of that coalition. We may be able to find ways to persuade commercial interests that there is a downside to bonding with the loony fringe.  The first step in achieving that is to shine a light on what is going on.

To that end, Matt’s piece is useful.


Thanks Mr. Trump, We Now Know Where You Stand … And it Aint Pretty!

The president must be off his rocker. How else can one explain his recent unhinged commentary about freshmen congresswomen? That they should go home to their corrupt countries?

Errr … they are American.

And speaking of corruption, the president appears to know a thing or two about that. The commentary is that his administration is easily bought off.

And how about sexual predation? We know something about Mr. Trump’s own history. And we are finding out that he apparently doesn’t seem to care about the  juvenile victims of Mr. Epstein.

Hmmm … is any of this geared to being re-elected? Or has Trump decided that he has no chance anyway, so he will make such a mess that dems will be glad if he steps down with a “get out of jail free” card.

What do you think?

How You Know When Trump is Lying?

The brutal answer that Lawrence O’Donnell offers is that he opens his mouth.

But slightly more seriously, there are some “tells”. Things that he says that give it away.

Michael Steele offers the best one — whenever Trump starts a sentence with “I heard …” hide behind the couhc. A big fat whopper lie is about to come out.

Another tell — if he refers to his friend “Jimmy”. Jimmy does not exist.

If he tells a story where someone calls him “sir”, the story is a phony.

And if Trump ends the story with”It’s true!” you know it is a lie.

I would add one — whenever Trump says “I couldn’t believe it but …” he doesn’t believe it because he  is making it up.

Trump Ignores Court Order and Bolloxes the Census

Like a grumpy spoiled brat kid in a sand box? You be the judge.

If Obama had done this, Donald Trump would have been screaming like a stuck pig.

But Donald Trump just did that.

The Supreme Court just ruled that the Trump Administration cannot put its so called “citizenship question” on the upcoming census. The reasoning offered by the Trumspters was too blatantly ridiculous to justify harming certain groups.  The Justice Department then filed a pleading back in the district court that they were giving up. The game was over.

Until Donald Trump tweeted that the game was not over. He wanted to find a “way around” the Supreme Court judgment and said his administration was doing that. Now, we might keep in mind that the Justice Department had already said to the court that the game was over. And at least in theory, the Justice Department is  independent from the White House. But, not this time. The Justice Department told the court that while delaying the census now to change the questions was not possible and the forms were already at the printer, it would still look into changing the questions.


The district court judge was not impressed and ordered the Trump Justice Department to clarify its position by Friday at 2:00. The Trump Justice Department has ignored that deadline.

Why we should care: (1) ignoring court orders is the first step towards debasing the rule of law. Doing so AFTER the US Supreme Court has already ruled on the subject is is even worse. (2)  Pursuing a strategy that for no reason delays the next census is a dereliction of the president’s duty to the country.

Stay tuned on this one.

Hey Donald! How Those Trade Wars Going?

My bet is that Donald Trump started his trade wars because raising tariffs is easy to understand. He saw it as easy leverage that would make other countries (China) quake in their boots.  Winning trade wars would cement his image as a tough guy.

This is simplistic thinking at best. The other countries involved know that trade wars because drawn out affairs. As Trump imposes tariffs, they retaliate. And they know that sooner rather than later Trump will either be gone or suffer too much political damage to continue.

Autocrats (as in China) have less political risk.

Here is Paul Krugman today for NYT

Donald Trump’s declaration that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” will surely go down in the history books as a classic utterance — but not in a good way. Instead it will go alongside Dick Cheney’s prediction, on the eve of the Iraq war, that “we will, in fact, be welcomed as liberators.” That is, it will be used to illustrate the arrogance and ignorance that so often drives crucial policy decisions.

Meanwhile, who gets hurt? US  businesses and consumers.

Ivanka and Jared to the Rescue!

Very funny

… a Zelig-inspired, Gump-reminiscent meme that exploded in tweets over the past few days. Look: There’s Ivanka between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. And here’s Ivanka teaming with Jonas Salk to develop the polio vaccine. She stretches out in bed with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. She peeks through a window in the background of the painting “American Gothic.”

And I thought Billy Carter was embarrassing!