Time to Get Real

June 30, 2020

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Well, it looks like Donald Trump’s term in office may end very much as it began, with our intelligence community reporting hostile actions by the Russians and the President covering up for them as best he can. Apparently, strong evidence that the Russians put a bounty on the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan became available several months ago. Not only did the President do nothing about it, but he continued to support his friend Putin in other areas of his agenda, such as joining the G7 nations. Now he claims that he was never briefed. Perhaps not, considering that telling truth to power has never been encouraged in this administration.

Does this story sound familiar? Even before Trump took office, our intelligence agencies had concluded that Russia was interfering in our election process. His response was to dismiss the finding as fake news, accept Putin’s denial, and do his best to obstruct the investigation. He also concocted his own story of election malfeasance, attributing his failure to win the popular vote to fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants. More recently, when he was caught trying to blackmail Ukraine into discrediting Joe Biden, he dismissed that reporting as fake news too, and once again obstructed the investigation.

When we look back on Trump’s years in office, what we see is a president whose ability to create convenient fantasies is only exceeded by his inability to tackle real problems. He is consistently long on denial and short on leadership.

Do too many Americans lack affordable health insurance? No, the problem in Trump’s mind is the Affordable Care Act itself, which his administration is still trying to get the Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional. He claims to have a better and cheaper plan, which he has never revealed.

Do too many communities still suffer from systemic racism, over-aggressive policing and mass incarceration? No, the problem in his mind is the people who are protesting those things.

Have new technologies destroyed too many good jobs, requiring new investments in education and training? No, the problem in his mind is just foreign competition and immigration, which can be dealt with by trade tariffs and a wall.

Does climate change threaten the future of the planet? No, the problem in his mind is environmental regulation, which interferes with the fossil fuel industry’s aim of producing as much fossil fuel as quickly as possible.

Does the coronavirus pandemic call for strong federal leadership to increase testing, track the infections, equip our health care providers, and promote safe behaviors? No, the problem in his mind is that testing is turning up too many cases, and safety restrictions are depriving Americans of their liberties.

Now that Trump is in real danger of losing the presidency, does voter suppression or further help from the Russians threaten the 2020 election too? No, the problem in his mind is that mail-in ballots—the most sensible way of voting during a pandemic—will fraudulently elect Joe Biden.

In all of his denials and phony claims, Trump has been aided and abetted by Congressional Republicans. He can rely on them to block any serious attempts to deal with the country’s problems, while covering for him when he commits corrupt acts. Senate Republicans acquitted him in his impeachment trial, although many admitted privately or publicly that he had probably done what he was accused of doing. The party in general has evolved to the point where Republicans focus far more of their efforts on retaining control of government than on actually governing. A sweeping generalization, I realize, but I stand by it.

Many of our social problems are ticking time bombs that have great destructive potential. We cannot afford four more years of fantasy.

 

 


Trump Beyond Reach of Law

February 3, 2020

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Let me get this straight. The House of Representatives has impeached President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. The abuse of power is that he allegedly made assistance to Ukraine–a contrary invaded by Russia–conditional upon its government’s initiation of investigations that would help Trump’s reelection campaign. That scheme included illegally holding up military aid already authorized by Congress. The obstruction of Congress involved refusing to comply with lawful subpoenas for witnesses and documents related to the investigation of the abuse of power.

The response of Senate Republicans to the obstruction charge is to assist Trump in the obstruction by blocking any attempt to obtain the very witnesses or documents that Trump is withholding. That makes Senators accomplices to the obstruction. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted as much when he promised to coordinate the Senate trial with the White House to get Trump acquitted, just before he raised his right hand and swore an oath to consider the evidence impartially.

The response of Senate Republicans to the abuse of power charge was first to deny that it happened. Now it has evolved into an admission that it happened, but Trump should be acquitted anyway. Why? Because his intent was only to get reelected, which he thought was in the “public interest.” And because the people should decide his fate in this year’s election. You know, the same election that Trump has been trying to corrupt. And what’s to stop him now? We have a justice department that says that a sitting president cannot be indicted. We have a Senate majority that says that he shouldn’t be impeached. We have a Congress that can’t even exercise oversight because Trump acknowledges no obligation to provide witnesses or turn over documents.

The Senate has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation for a fair trial. That’s not too surprising, considering that it has not been functioning as a democratic institution for some time. The Majority Leader refused to provide even a hearing for a highly respected, moderate Supreme Court nominee who had previously been praised by both parties, despite the constitutional obligation to “advise and consent.” Meanwhile, he fills the courts with judges whose views are far to the right of most Americans. Few bills passed by the House or sponsored by Senate Democrats are even debated in the Senate. That includes bills to protect the integrity of our elections against foreign interference. This Senate will go down in history as an enabler of the most serious assault on our democracy in our lifetimes.

One can only hope that our faith in democracy–although shaken by this administration and its congressional enablers–will not be destroyed. Very often in public affairs, the tide does turn. Truth comes out; corruption is revealed; the rule of law is strengthened; would-be dictators fall; and commitments to democratic principles are renewed.

Don’t forget to vote, or at least try to!


Democracy and Prosperity (part 3)

July 19, 2019

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I have been discussing the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and democracy as described by Torben Iversen and David Soskice. So far I’ve ignored variations among advanced capitalist democracies. But the authors warn against using any one country–such as the United States in discussions of the “Washington Consensus”–as a model for how ACDs have developed or should develop.  The American version of the emerging knowledge economy is only one version, and one that has its origins in a certain kind of history.

Two paths to capitalist democracy

The symbiotic relationship between democracy and capitalism developed along with the industrial economy. One link between the two was human capital development. Industrialization required a labor force with at least some basic skills, such as reading and writing, and that required some commitment to democratic institutions such as the public school.

How was the political order to be broadened to include the opinions and interests of workers? In some countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, pressure from the working class itself played a major role. In others, such as Britain, U.S., France, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, the initiative came more from modernizing elites who were challenging the power of agrarian interests unsympathetic to industrialization and democracy.

Those differences had their origins in preindustrial patterns of organization:

[T]he countries in which democratization was eventually the result of working-class pressure were organized locally on a quasi corporatist basis both in towns, with effective guild systems, and in the countryside with a widespread socially rooted semiautonomous peasantry, rural cooperatives, and/or dense rural-urban linkages…. [A]ll of these states were Ständestaaten in the nineteenth century—a system in which the different estates (including organized professions) played a direct role in governing. We therefore refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protocorporatist.

The authors do not give any simple definition of corporatism, but I think of it as the opposite of rugged individualism. While classical British and American liberalism celebrates the self-interested individual, corporatism sees people more as representatives of strong group interests, such as guilds or churches. To make a long story short, the protocorporatist countries provided more fertile ground for the emergence of strong worker organizations.

Things were different in Britain and America:

The elite-project societies, in essence Anglo-Saxon (apart from France, which we discuss separately), functioned quite differently: well-developed property markets with substantial freedom of labor mobility, towns with limited local autonomy, and guild systems which had either collapsed (Britain) or had hardly existed (the settler colonies and the United States, minus the South). We refer to the preindustrial political economy of these societies as protoliberal.

In both kinds of countries, some democratization accompanied industrialization, but it took different directions. In the protocorporatist countries like Denmark and Germany, “effective training systems were built on guild and Ständestaat traditions and provided a large pool of skilled workers, which in turn led to unified labor movements with the capacity to extract democratic concessions from elites.” In the protoliberal countries like Britain and America, “the absence of either guild or Ständestaat traditions led to fragmented labor movements with privileged craft-based unions but no effective training system. Here democracy emerged as the result of industrial elites compelling a reluctant landed aristocracy to accept expansion of education and other public goods required for industrialization.”

Political representation

These two paths to democracy had consequences for electoral systems. Where the working class was highly unified and organized, the more socialist left came to be better represented in politics. The elites and other prosperous members of society might resist democratization until the demands of the working class became too strong to ignore. Then they supported a system of proportional representation rather than winner-take-all elections, to protect themselves against the possibility of a working-class majority. Some of these democratic countries (Germany, Austria, Italy) reverted to authoritarian rule for a time in order to counter a perceived threat from the left, but democracy eventually prevailed.

In countries like the United States and Britain, where organized labor was weaker and more politically divided, majority rule worked better for the modernizing elites and other beneficiaries of industrial capitalism.

In these cases industrial elites had little fear of the working class, but they had a strong incentive to expand public goods, especially education and sanitation, required for the development of an effective labor force (in part to circumvent union control over the crafts). The key obstacles to this project were landowners and more generally conservatives who had no interest in an expansion of public goods and who held strong positions politically, especially at the local level. Majoritarian democracy in these cases essentially emerged as a means to force the landed elites to accept major public investments in education and infrastructure needed for modernization. At the same time, a majoritarian system with a strong bias toward the middle classes effectively excluded the radical left from influence over policies.

Iversen and Soskice see a perfect correlation between the alternative paths to democracy and the electoral systems. The “protocorporatist” countries adopted proportional representation systems that gave worker parties more voice, while the “protoliberal” countries adopted majority-rule systems where major parties had to be more-or-less centrist to win a majority.

Inequality and educational opportunity

Democratic governments of different kinds have adopted many of the same policies to support the growing knowledge sectors of their economies, for example by liberalizing trade and investing more in education. All of them have experienced some increase in inequality as technological innovation has rewarded workers with the right skills and penalized those without them. However, they differ markedly in the extent of the inequality and the associated decline of economic opportunity. The U.S. Council of Economic Advisers introduced the term “Great Gatsby curve” to describe the inverse relationship between economic inequality and intergenerational mobility among countries.

In general, the countries with weak worker organization and majoritarian electoral systems now have relatively high economic inequality and relatively low social mobility. This is true of the United States, United Kingdom and France. Canada and Australia are more average in inequality and social mobility.

In contrast, the countries with strong worker organization and proportional representation systems now have relatively low economic inequality and relatively high social mobility. This is especially true of the Nordic countries: Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Germany is more average in inequality and social mobility.

I think this is an important finding, because it means that even in a world of global, hi-tech competition, countries have choices. Economic growth and global competitiveness do not necessarily require the extravagant executive salaries and tax cuts enjoyed by the American 1%! Nor do they require tossing aside former manufacturing workers without making provision for their economic security or retraining.

One of the biggest factors in economic opportunity is education, and here the international findings reflect badly on the United States. Here the authors use an index of educational opportunity based on such variables as the availability of vocational training, the public spending on preprimary education, the public/private division of higher educational spending, and the age at which students are tracked (since early tracking can restrict opportunity). Among advanced democracies, only Japan and South Korea scored lower than the U.S. on this index. The Nordic countries scored the best.

Many readers may find this puzzling because the U.S. has so many fine schools, especially major research universities. But the quality of individual schools is not the same thing as educational opportunity. A good prep school that serves only the affluent does little to provide upward mobility.

In our majority-rule system, the interests of the downwardly mobile minority are not being well served. Their interests have diverged more sharply from those of more successful workers, making it harder for the traditional party of labor to represent them. This relates very much to the next topic, the threat that populism poses to democracies with high inequality.

Continued


The Attorney General vs. the Rule of Law

May 3, 2019

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A pretty strange headline, yes. But what can I say? Attorney General William Barr’s Senate testimony provided more insight into his thinking about the Mueller investigation, and what he thinks is troubling.

Who decides?

Recall that Robert Mueller stopped short of deciding whether or not the President had committed a crime. He accepted the Justice Department guideline that a sitting president cannot be indicted. He also believed that it would be unfair to accuse a president of a crime without indicting him, since the president would be deprived of the opportunity to clear his name in court. So he just laid out the facts, and then left it to Congress to begin an impeachment proceeding if the facts warranted it.

Attorney General Barr sees it very differently. He told Congress that a Special Counsel investigation is no different than any other criminal investigation. “Once a prosecutor has exhausted his investigation into the facts of a case, he or she faces a binary choice, either to commence or to decline prosecution. At the end of the day, the federal prosecutor must decide yes or no.” Barr went so far as to say, “I think that if he felt that he shouldn’t go down the path of making a traditional prosecutive decision, then he shouldn’t have investigated”!

Apparently, Barr sees no value in an investigation that might lead to Congressional action rather than Justice Department prosecution. He prefers to keep a legal decision about the executive within the executive branch itself.

Since in Barr’s eyes, Mueller failed to do his job by not making a decision, Barr felt justified in making the decision for him, instead of referring it to Congress. In fact, he rushed to make it before Congress had a chance to see the report. He even referred to the case as “my baby.”

No obstruction?

Attorney General Barr’s judgment is that the President committed no crime. He bases his judgment of “no collusion” on Volume I of the Mueller report, which failed to find sufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy. He bases his judgment of “no obstruction” on Volume II…or does he?

Actually, his four-page “summary” of the Mueller report says that the lack of conclusive findings in Volume I eliminates the “underlying crime” that is relevant to the President’s intent. If there was no conspiracy, what corrupt motive would the President have to obstruct the investigation? That enables him to clear the President without taking very seriously the voluminous evidence of obstruction in Volume II.

There is a gaping hole in this logic. If the evidence in insufficient to establish conspiracy, that could be largely due to a successful coverup. Mueller reported that “several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”

One can easily imagine a scenario in which the President does something wrong, but then obstructs the investigation so well that the wrongdoing cannot be firmly established. His Attorney General then concludes that the President couldn’t have had a motive to obstruct justice, since he hasn’t been proven to have done anything wrong!

But it gets worse. In response to Senate questioning, Barr also took the position that the President can rightfully terminate an investigation if it is based on “unfounded allegations.” Who decides if the investigations are unfounded? The President, of course. So an investigation to determine if the allegations are true becomes unnecessary.

That assumes that the President is the best judge of the legality of his own conduct. It also assumes that he is omniscient enough to know what everyone else in his campaign or administration is doing. For Barr, it is justification enough that President Trump had a “sincere belief” that his administration was unfairly under attack. How many of us would be willing to place our trust in this president’s sincerity?

The implications of this line of legal reasoning are mind-boggling. The Chief Executive gets to decide whether an investigation is warranted of allegations against himself and his associates. If he ends such an investigation, the Justice Department is fine with that, and Congress is deprived of the information it needs to exercise its impeachment authority under the Constitution. The idea that the administration can also stonewall Congress and not respond to legal requests for information is consistent with this reasoning. The supposedly co-equal lawmakers take a back seat to the executive, no matter how incompetent or corrupt. Goodbye rule of law, welcome back George III.


The Mueller Report–Attorney General Barr’s Distortions

May 1, 2019

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On March 22, Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr. Unfortunately, Barr did not just release the report and let it speak for itself. Before putting out a redacted version, he rushed to conclusions that differed in important respects from the report itself.

Two days after receiving the report, Attorney General Barr released a four-page document that he said was intended “to describe the report and to summarize the principal conclusions reached by the Special Counsel and the results of his investigation.” When complaints began to surface that his summary was incomplete and misleading, he backtracked and denied that it was really a summary.

Barr’s conclusion on conspiracy

Recall what Mueller’s own summary said about a possible conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump Campaign:

As set forth in detail in this report, the Special Counsel’s investigation established that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election principally through two operations. First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees, and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents. The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.

Attorney General Barr repeats what the report says about the Russians. But then he skips over the part about the links between the Russians and the Trump Campaign, as well as the part about the mutual benefits the parties were expecting. Barr goes right to his conclusion, “The Special Counsel’s investigation did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” In case anyone missed it, Barr repeats the conclusion in each of the following two paragraphs. Apparently, all the wrongdoing was by the Russians, and no misdeeds by Americans are worth mentioning.

Barr also leaves out Mueller’s qualifying statements: first, that a failure to establish facts does not prove the absence of those facts; and second, that the lies told by many suspects impeded the investigation in finding the facts.

At his press conference before he released the report, Barr did exactly what Mueller warned against, turning insufficient evidence of criminal conspiracy into a flat-out judgment of “no collusion,” Trump’s favorite talking point.

President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates….At the same time there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability, yet as he said from the beginning, there was, in fact, no collusion.

Barr’s conclusion on obstruction

Mueller had found considerable evidence of obstruction of justice by President Trump. But he believed that Justice Department regulations prevented him both from indicting the President and from accusing him of a crime. “[W]e determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.”

In his summary (or non-summary), Attorney General Barr just says, “The Special Counsel…did not draw a conclusion–one way or the other–as to whether the examined conduct constituted obstruction.” That’s technically true. But since Barr does not mention that Mueller was prevented by Department regulations from reaching a conclusion of criminal conduct, he leaves the reader to think that the evidence must have been inconclusive. Note that Mueller was not precluded from clearing the President of wrongdoing, and he says that he would have done so if the evidence supported that conclusion.

Then Barr asserts:

The Special Counsel’s decision to describe the facts of his obstruction investigation without reaching any legal conclusions leaves it to the Attorney General to determine whether the conduct described in the report constitutes a crime.

His determination is that the evidence is not sufficient to establish obstruction of justice.

But Mueller had said nothing about leaving it to the Attorney General, who would be subject to the same regulations that tied Mueller’s hands. In Mueller’s view, it fell to Congress, or to federal and state prosecutors after Trump left office, to make the appropriate legal judgments.

What Barr does is take advantage of Mueller’s restraint, turning a policy of not accusing a sitting president into a conclusion of insufficient evidence, a conclusion that Mueller never reached about obstruction. As Senator Angus King put it, “Mueller passed the obstruction question to the Congress, and Barr intercepted the pass….”

Barr’s willingness to go beyond the report to conclude that Trump and his associates had committed no crimes enabled the President to claim complete exoneration, while characterizing the entire investigation as a witch hunt and an attempted coup against his presidency. Then he proceeded to obstruct any possible Congressional investigation by vowing to resist all subpoenas.

Mueller’s response to Barr

Three days after Attorney General Barr released his misleading “summary”, Special Counsel Mueller wrote him a letter characterizing it this way:

The summary letter the Department sent to Congress and released to the public late in the afternoon of March 24 did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this office’s work and conclusions….There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.

Barr kept Mueller’s letter secret and later testified before Congress that he didn’t know what Mueller thought of his conclusions.

In his handling of the Mueller Report, Attorney General Barr did a disservice to the Justice Department and the American people. He acted more like Trump’s personal slick attorney, spinning the evidence for the jury in order to create the best impression of innocence he could. I’m glad that Mueller called him on it, and I continue to hope that the full truth will come out.