Category Archives: National Politics

Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.

Bureaucracy Isn’t Funny

 

For most Americans government bureaucracy is a joke. Literally. Here’s an example: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, one to screw it up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Bureaucrats are good at fixing blame, bad at fixing problems. Bureaucrats never stop a buck here. Pass a buck, sure. Spend a buck, definitely. Stop the buck, not so much.

I know, I know, the japery isn’t exactly hitting Dave Chappelle or Jim Carey levels of hilarity in the old chortle department. But consider the material I’m working with here. And if jokes about the bureaucracy don’t make you laugh, I don’t mind. Because what’s happening at and to the executive branch agencies of the federal government these days just isn’t funny. Through a mixture of neglect, incompetence and premeditated demolition, the operational capabilities of a range of federal bureaucracies are being systematically degraded.

Plenty of the president’s supporters–and, I’m guessing even some of his detractors–are cheering on this dismantling. Everyone knows a government bureaucracy is a system designed to allow twelve men to do the work of one (bada-bing). Everyone knows bureaucracy is just cease on the wheels of progress (bada-boom). Maybe so. But everyone is dead wrong.

Let’s just take one example of a bureaucracy that’s suffering under the Trump administration, the Department of State, the executive branch agency dedicated to foreign policy. Managing foreign affairs has always been considered an important and central responsibility of the federal government. The Department of Foreign Affairs–which later became the State Department–was created by an act of Congress in 1789, the first federal bureaucracy ever brought to life under the Constitution. There’s a reason for this primacy–since the founding of the Republic foreign relations have been considered a central responsibility of the federal government, and wise management of that portfolio requires diplomatic expertise.

Most people see the sense in that. Foreign affairs are important to any nation state, or at least any nation state that wants to sell goods in foreign markets, buy stuff from foreign markets, protect its citizens when they travel abroad, and prefers to make jaw-jaw before war-war. For an economic, military and cultural juggernaut like the United States such functions are critical. Having an agency stuffed with experts on foreign governments and how they operate comes in mighty handy if you want to stop them from lobbing a nuke your way, or prevent them from otherwise being an irritant or nuisance to the national interest. Shoot, it’s pretty important if all you want to do is sell furriners more corn than the contents of a Hee Haw episode.

If that agency isn’t up to par personnel-wise, it’s hard to do that stuff, or at least do it competently. And the State Department these days is the opposite of stuffed. There are 72 appointed positions in State that the Trump administration has yet to bother submitting a nominee for.  And we’re not talking coffee boy and copy gopher sort of jobs. The president has yet to nominate anyone for four of the six undersecretary positions (you can find a running tally of Trump administration nominations here ). State Department careerists have been heading for the exits for six months, essentially with Trumpanistas smirking, “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum have responded with alarm to the hollowing out of the agency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it’s all just so much pointy-headed fuss and feathers. There’s no need to worry about State being undermanned because, and I’m not making this up, the United States doesn’t need so many diplomats because world crises and conflicts are getting resolved. Uh-huh. I guess we don’t need an ambassador to South Korea (no one nominated) or a special envoy to North Korea (ditto) because, well, nothing going on in that neighborhood. We haven’t got a representative to the European Union either, but what the heck, everything looks tickety-boo over there and it’s not like they’re important to US interests.

President Trump has given assurances that there’s no cause for disquiet or concern. Sure, the government of the United States is increasingly managing its foreign relations without experts who know the language, culture, politics and modus operandi of allies and opponents. But who needs ‘em. As Trump puts it, “I am the only one that matters.” That news was received by two pops. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping popping a cork. Everyone else popping Prozac.

The erosion of expertise, professionalism and technical competence would be bad enough if it were limited to the State Department. But it’s not. It is a general, systematic trend across the federal bureaucracy. Education, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture–whole swaths of the federal government are in various stages of being hollowed out and actively undermined by the people appointed to lead them. These efforts may very well turn the United States government into a joke. But it’s really not that funny.

 

Talking Turkey on Tax Plans

Henry Clay Warmoth was a famously corrupt governor of Reconstruction-era Louisiana who never claimed to be anything other than the carpet bagging chiseler he was. “I don’t pretend to be honest,” he said. “I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”* And, as everyone knows, candor is harder to find in politics than molars in a hen house.

Warmoth would, no doubt, appreciate the truthy-falsey nature of the marketing campaign surrounding tax reform plans currently working their way through Congress. The recently passed plan by the House differs in pretty substantial ways from what’s currently being floated in the Senate, so who knows what specifics will emerge from the legislative difference splitting. Regardless, Republican proponents promise– crossed hearts, pinkie swear and everything—that once all is said and done, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it, “Every single American is going to keep more of what they earn.

Well, not every American. Obviously. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ non-partisan bean counter of tolls and tariffs, there’s winners and losers (you can see their report here). The short version is that some Americans–mostly big, important rich Americans–will get to keep a truckload more cash, more than $40 billion of it.  The middle class will get to keep a skosh more, at least until their tax breaks expire. Those earning under $40,000 are–surprise, surprise–being set up to get screwed.

It’s seems accurate enough that most people will get a modest bit of tax relief from the House bill (something on the order of a hundred bucks), but between 1-in-5 and 1-in-3 will actually see their taxes increase a bit. And a good chunk of the actual tax relief is set to turn into a pumpkin in a few years. The modest tax goodies for suckers, um, regular citizens, have an expiration date. This is needed in order to mathematically keep the deficit kraken submerged in a (fake) shallower sea of red ink. So, the number of people who will see their taxes rise as a result of Republican plans will grow over the long term. And who ends up paying more? Hint: If you’ve got more than six zeroes to the left of the decimal point in your checking account, don’t sweat it. The GOP has your back.

You can get a good sense of how the House Republican tax plan will effect Americans as a whole by just looking at what it will do for the roughly 45 people who at least nominally call me boss (they call me a lot of other stuff too, much of which I won’t repeat). I sit at the apex of the mighty knowledge producing machine known as the University of Nebraska’s Department of Political Science. Its employees include professors, administrative staff, adjuncts, teaching and research assistants. No one in this group is a 1 percenter (or even a 10 percenter), but at the top end there’s a group earning a decent upper middle-class income. That group includes me, so lover of lucre I am, I was eager to see how the Republican plan would line my pocket. To do this I used an online calculator designed to give you a rough idea of what your tax burden would look like if the House plan actually became law (there’s several to choose from, the one I used for all calculations in this post can be found here, and you can follow this link to figure out what your own tax payoff might look like).

For me, it turned out not a huge amount, a couple of hundred bucks give or take, with adjustments up or down based on which set of assumed numbers I plugged into the calculator. At the extreme end, punching in the most hopeful (and unrealistic) estimates I could get the calculator to spit out a tax savings for me of about eight hundred dollars. Let’s just round that out to a thousand because it makes the math easier. Using the Warmoth guide to veracity, then, I can honestly say the Republican plan would put an extra grand in my pocket.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the income spectrum in my department. On this thin end of the wage spectrum are teaching and research assistants. These are grad students who get paid a $16,000 annual stipend, plus a tuition waiver. Under current law, the tuition waiver is not counted as taxable income, but under the House Republican plan it is. So, tax relief for these guys means getting taxed on money they never had. The table below shows the difference in their tax bills under current law and the Republican plan.

Yep, their tax bill jumps by about 500 percent, increasing by about two thousand dollars. At least in my little world, then, what the Republican tax plan does is redistribute income from the have nots (grad students) to the haves (me). A thousand dollars translates into about twenty bucks a week. Putting that much extra in my weekly paycheck will have pretty much zero impact on my saving or consumption patterns. Taking two thousand dollars from a grad student is a serious hit—it represents a couple of months of take home pay.

Broadly speaking, this analogy seems to be generalizable. Current tax reform plans in Congress will be a huge boon to the Wall Street crowd, a huge boondoggle for the poor, and people in the middle like me are being offered twenty bucks a week to go along and pretend it’s all a good thing. Unlike Warmoth, though, some of us have met bribes we’re willing to refuse. This tax reform plan is a seriously bad idea. Honest.

Chernow, Ron, 2017. Grant.  New York: Penguin. p. 757

A Poll of Scorn Flakes

Remove the electoral horizon from a Republican member of the United States Senate these days and the result is an astonishing ocular descaling. With no next election occupying the majority of their visual field such legislators are finally free to take a clear-eyed look around them. As Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain are making abundantly clear, they don’t like what they see.

Because of voluntary retirement (Flake and Corker) or serious health issues (McCain), this trio is in the unusual position of not giving a hoot about the alt-right persecution platoons flitting through the fevered primary nightmares of their elected GOP brethren. Nor do they have to fear a 140-character Trump dump flushing their political careers down the Fox hole. They no longer have to worry about looking good to the right donors or the right special interest groups.

With their political peepers released from the need for the constant short-term vigilance on anything that might affect their chances in the next election, they’re staring hard at something else: Their own political party.  And, ouchie-mama, if you believe these guys, things ain’t looking good.

In the past week or two, they’ve certainly not been shy about reporting the perspective from their own-side eyeballing. The report basically boils down to this: “Hey, has anyone noticed? Our party just got a louche, unqualified bully elected president! We’re piddling on principle in our pursuit of power! We’re pushing half-baked policies with fibs and fabulation! Has anyone else noticed how surly and loutish we’ve become?” I’m paraphrasing, of course. But this is the general sentiment emanating from Flake’s extraordinary denunciation of his president (and party) from the Senate floor, Corker’s ongoing campaign of I-call-bull on the Donald and his inept minions, and McCain’s full-throated condemnation of the cockeyed populism hijacking the GOP.

Reactions to this have been mixed. The White House is in full there is no-way-they-can-see-the-emperor’s-unmentionables-through-so-many-layers-of-clothing mode. Democrats and lefties have suddenly rediscovered their respect for principled conservatives, making much noise about honorable men elevating values and comity over partisan point scoring. GOP colleagues in the Senate have mostly been silent, which can only be interpreted as “we can see the emperor’s junk clear as day, but we’re keeping mum in hopes of keeping our jobs, kudos to you guys for saying what we’re all thinking.”

Well, fair enough. Agree or disagree with them, not many these days have the onions to proclaim that their own side is two turnips short a full measure of root vegetables. Yet before anyone gets too misty eyed about the Mr. Smith goes to Washington performances or too choleric about their turncoat tirades (and, let’s face it, your perspective matters here), it is worth taking a look at how their actions correlate with their words. News flash: the concordance is pretty itty-bitty.

The curtain call caucus might lay a lot of harsh words on the president, but where the support of a senator really matters—the yea and nay of legislation—they’re all pretty rock solid Trump guys. FiveThirtyEight keeps a running tally of support of the administration’s legislative agenda in both chambers of Congress, and by that measure Flake, McCain and Corker are high-level yes men. Flake—the hero du jour of the anti-Trump GOP wing—votes with the administration 90 percent of the time. Corker clocks in with 86 percent support and McCain is at 84 percent. The words may be all maverick-y, but those voting records look pretty party line.

The scruples trio, for example, have all expressed disappointment in one way or another with the competence—specifically, the lack thereof—of the Trump administration. Yet they helped put it in place. Confirm someone as a department head who reveals at her hearing she’s innocent of even the basic details of her agency’s policy portfolio? How about someone who doesn’t seem to know exactly what his agency does? Or someone who knows the legal mandate of his agency and has vowed to torpedo it from within? The three principled amigos all voted for Betsy DeVos (Education) and Rick Perry (Energy), Flake and Corker both voted for Tom Pruitt (EPA), and McCain probably would have joined them if he’d cast a vote that dy. Excuse me if I take these guys’ anguished hand-wringing over the government’s ineptitude with a healthy pinch of salt.

And where these guys have broken with the Trump administration, it’s hard to see any high falutin’ principle-over-politics motivation. Flake and Corker bucked the Trump administration to vote against disaster relief for Puerto Rico, a piece of legislation that passed with a large bipartisan majorities. They also voted against raising the debt limit and extending relief for Hurricane Harvey, which was supported not just by the White House but pretty much all the grownups on both sides of the aisle.

McCain actually did cast one big vote that bucked the president and his party—he voted against the hot mess of the Obamacare repeal legislation. And, fair enough, that really was a big stand and a big deal. The GOP and Trump really felt that, and even if the bill in question was truly awful (it was) it can’t have been easy to provide the smack down ballot on something his party so desperately wanted.  The vast majority of the time, though, McCain’s votes reliably support the desires of the Republican Party and the Trump administration.

I guess the big test of whether the rhetoric on scruples will actually align with action is on the upcoming tax bill. No one is exactly sure of the specifics of this proposal or its likely consequences—Republican leadership and the Trump White House really don’t want anyone to know, they just want it enacted toot suite because they really need a win. It’s pretty certain it’ll favor the well off and liberally splash red ink onto the government’s ledgers, but outside of that who knows.

It’ll be interesting to see if Flake and Corker’s concerns about government debt translate into no votes. Will they stick to the core anti-deficit values they’ve been fervently espousing, or say pooh to principle and vote yea because the president and, especially, the Republican Party have to get a W? And what about McCain, is he actually willing to cock a snoot on a second major legislative priority?

Nothing is certain, of course, but political scientists know that the best predictor of future legislative behavior is past legislative behavior. On that basis, the odds are 10 to 15 percent that the say-do ratio for these three will balance out. The odds are way higher—85 to 90 percent history is any guide—they’ll say no and press yes. Their words have been harsh, even scornful. Polling their votes, though, reveals three pretty dutiful Republican loyalists. And actions should speak louder than words.

A Very Uncivil War

William Tecumseh Sherman famously argued that war is an unpleasant, bloody slog, and to pretend otherwise is fudge and folly. The optimal policy is not to fight a war in the first place, especially a civil war. If war it is to be, however, the best option is to ruthlessly rain harm on the other side as much as possible as fast as possible. If the gloves come off, get in there and mercilessly punch your opponent’s mug to a pulp, even if that means taking a few nasty licks yourself. “War is cruelty,” he said. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”

It’s a brutal philosophy, but as any Southerner stuck between Savannah and Atlanta in late 1864 can attest, an effective one. It works in politics, too. Intramural fights within political parties can be just as vicious and nasty as the most ferocious throw-downs between them. The most malevolent of these internal shootouts can devolve into Cain and Abel sorts of situations, ideological death-matches where the goal is not to lead your partisan brother to the light, but to stick a shiv in his back and put him and his movement down for good. If the ideological or policy split within a party is big enough–historical examples in the United States include slavery, trust busting and civil rights–you get the political equivalent of a full-blown civil war. As Sherman said, it is best not to get into that position in the first place. If there’s no avoiding it, though, hit first, hit hard, and don’t stop hitting until you see white flags from the other side.

Of course, all this metaphorical pugilism is presumed to serve a larger strategic goal. In other words, you commit savagery on behalf of a principle, a creed or a value so sacred it justifies do-or-die, or at least a good social media bitch slapping of people on your own side. But what if the whole point of carrying out that civil war is the sheer sport of carrying out spiteful and rancorous assaults? How do you bring that to a rapid and reasonably amicable end?

If you have a good answer to that question, the Republican Party will be (or at least, should be) glad to hear from you. The GOP is currently engaging in a particularly nasty and vicious civil war. It’s gone way past the usual jockeying for power and position of competing factions of a political party. That typically involves a lot of back-stabbing and double-crossing, but it’s mostly done behind closed doors and almost never gets to the point where the combatants are in the streets howling for each other’s heads. But that’s exactly where the GOP seems to be finding itself.

There seems to be no overarching ideological or policy goal motivating this fight. The media mostly portrays it as a conflict between the establishment wing of the Republican Party and the populist wing of the Republican Party. And, I guess, it is. The people involved certainly seem to think so. Stephen Bannon, relishing the part of Republican Party Dr. Evil, has publicaly declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.”  The Bannon banner-men lose no opportunity to call the establishment fuddy-duddies “RINOs”, “cucks”, “booger heads,” and “snot lickers.” Okay, I made the last couple up, but some of it does smack of a 10-year-old’s you’re-not-the-boss-of-me foot stamping.

The establishment isn’t standing for it. Bob Corker and Susan Collins have wagged serious fingers (heavy on the middle digit) at Donald Trump. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson lost his temper and called his boss–the president of the United States–a moron. Dubya and John McCain are doing their best stern dad impressions, giving lectures along the lines of, “You dern kids need to stop foolin’ with all this newfangled Trumpism and listening to those hippity-hop nationalists.” Meanwhile the Republican leaders of the two houses of Congress can barely get along with each other, can barely stand the president, and seem helpless to prevent their party–the party that won everything in 2016–going into the next election bare-assed.

The end result is that Republicans keep doing inadvisable things with their own feet–shooting them, masticating them, and planting them in each other’s butts. At the center of this meltdown is President Trump, who is, hands down, the party’s champion mug-puncher. The list of sore-jawed include Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, pretty much his entire cabinet (notably Tillerson and Jeff Sessions), and most GOP members of the United States Senate (McCain, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Lyndsey Graham, Bob Corker, Ben Sasse and on and on and on). Of course Trump has not limited his slugging to Republicans. Or even Democrats. He gets licks in on, of all people, hurricane victims and Gold Star families.

The bottom line is there is a lot of extremely nasty infighting going on within the political party that controls all the major power centers of the national government. The collateral damage could get ugly. Some of the major combatants (one in particular) do not seem to be fighting for principle. They just seem to like meanness for its own sake. The goal doesn’t seem to be to end the fight quickly but to prolong it as much as possible. Then start a new one.

Given that, I can’t hazard a guess at which side of the GOP civil war is going to win. I am pretty sure, though, which of those sides is going to lose: Both of them. War, as Sherman so eloquently put it, is hell.

 

Guns ‘n’ Poses

Americans are unique among citizens of Western liberal democracies in believing that freedom comes from a gun barrel. Outside our shores there’s a more or less universal agreement that the business end of trigger pulling and large bangs is simply a projectile moving with explosive force. Even cheese eating surrender monkeys will allow that said projectile might free someone from their mortal coil, but that’s not the sort of freedom Americans are really talking about.

What Americans, or at least the millions of National Rifle Association/Second Amendment gun rights purists, are talking about is actual freedom, individual liberty, guns as a prophylactic against unwanted coercion by government or the neighborhood bullyboys. Sure it’s good to have freedom of assembly and the right to speak your mind and all that. Without a shootin’ iron, though, any Tom, Dick or Redcoat can cozen you out of those hard won liberties. It is only our plug-a-thug capacity that stands between us and terrorists, robbers, Obama, the gummint and sundry other evil doers. True, all this freedom and vigilance does involve collateral damage. Others you might end up shooting include your spouse, your child,  your mailman, your teacher, your preacher, your neighbor, some random tourist, or those dern teens playing their hippity-hoppity music.  And, of course, yourself.

That’s said without any intended sarcasm, irony or condemnation. Near as I can tell, it’s an accurate statement of a belief genuinely held by lots and lots of Americans. It’s a much rarer attitude in other countries where democratically elected governments have enacted strong gun controls with, if not full-throated support, at least without the implacable enmity of the people. The Dunblane massacre in the UK and the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, for example, resulted in a swift regulatory response.  Dunblanes and Port Arthurs are not shocking one-offs in the United States. We have them with a truly disturbing regularity. In response, the government does mostly nothing.

Many outside, and plenty inside, the United States find all of this baffling. It’s not even really a question of public opinion and preferences. There are lots of gun control measures that research suggests will reduce (though far from eliminate) gun violence and already have high levels of public support  (you can see a list here).  Every time there’s a massacre–Sandy Hook, San Bernadino, Virginia Tech, Pulse nightclub–these proposals are lofted back into the Republic’s political discourse only to go splat on the Second Amendment shield hoisted by the NRA. For those expecting the Las Vegas bloodbath to result in any different outcome … um, I’d prepare for disappointment.

Like it or not, the legal right to keep some serious bang-bang in our pockets is pretty much etched into American culture and it’s not going anywhere that isn’t on an NRA-approved map. Las Vegas, no doubt, will set off another competitive round of Second Amendment parsing, but chances are it won’t change the status quo much. The interesting question is why so many Americans are so uniquely attached to unregulated gun ownership that they are willing to put up with gun violence on a scale unthinkable in other places (the US has roughly one mass shooting per day).  A shooting tragedy that elsewhere would be met with a forceful response from the political system in America only evokes some version of, “awful, terrible, thoughts and prayers, yada, yada, yada, but, meh, whaddya gonna do?”

Maybe this is because it’s deeply embedded in the American psyche that our independence was won by a populace taking up arms to take down a tyrannical government. The experience lingers in the national consciousness, so we still feel the need for lots and lots of military-grade firearms because you just never know when the gummint’s gonna get too big for its britches. Yet a lot of the yeoman of nostalgic worship also took up arms for the British. Their guns were deployed not for, but against the cause of liberty (or, depending on perspective, illegal usurpation).* Maybe we should regulate guns because you can never tell who’ll turn out to be a Tory bastard taking potshots at his neighbors for the king. The logic behind that argument seems equally as sound as its opposite, but, whatever. The point is that the whole justification for bearing arms as a check on central government is an anachronism. If nothing else, I seriously doubt that what we’ve got in the gun rack is going to leave the 82nd Airborne or the Coldstream Guards shaking in their boots.

Well, what about the personal protection argument? Despite liberals sputtering to the contrary, that argument actually holds some water. The ability to lay down some lead can be a pretty effective counter to a mugging or home invasion. There are roughly a couple of hundred justifiable gun homicides a year, and 1 percent of crime victims use a gun in self-defense (numbers and source here). So, no mistake about it, guns can and are used to put the hurt on baddies. Just not that much, and not very often. So, if political freedom is secured in America, as it is in all comparable polities, not by guns but by stable democratic institutions and the rule of law, and personal armories are rarely deployed to secure the personal safety and security of individuals, what’s the deal? Why are Americans so attached to the weaponry?

It’s simple: We. Like. Guns.  Stripped down to its essence, that’s pretty much it. We love guns. We own more of them than any other stable democracy (roughly 300 million). We have entire media enterprises–magazines, TV shows, YouTube channels–dedicated to them. We get switched on by thrusting bullets into a chamber and feeling that stress relief when we pop them off. We like a lot of gun violence in our novels and movies. We adorn our vehicles with gun slogans: Glock, the point and click interface; guns don’t kill people, I do; you are free to be a liberal thanks to a man with a gun; and so on and so forth. Is all this fetish-y? Gun porn-y? Well, yeah. That’s kind of our thing. And we’re serious about it. One of the most powerful private political entities in our entire commonwealth–the NRA–is dedicated to making sure not just that we can own shotguns or hunting rifles. In NRA-world we have the inviolate right to own assault weapons, silencers, armor-piercing ammunition, and to conceal about our persons various phallic instruments giving us the power of life and death over our fellow citizens.

Of course there’s a price to be paid for the freedom to indulge such proclivities. Someone’s gonna get killed adjusting their bra holster, the odd toddler is going to get killed searching for candy in grandma’s purse, some guy will accidentally loose off a round while sitting on the crapper in Walmart,  random dipsticks living low-rent Bonnie and Clyde fantasies will shoot up neighborhoods for no reason at all, and suspected terrorists will be legally allowed to buy to guns because they have Second Amendment rights too. Oh, plus there will be the not-so-occasional massacre.

As I said, lots of people don’t get this. This sort of stuff just doesn’t happen in other countries, at least not with the metronomic regularity it does in America.  And if did happen in other countries, it’s a dead certainty some attempt at mitigation would follow. So why do we put up with it? The need to keep a limitation on the encroachment of government? To secure the rights of the Second Amendment? To uphold individual liberty? Personal protection? Nah. Let’s be honest. We just like guns.

* You might be asking if it wasn’t the freedom to bear arms that was the critical element in securing revolutionary victory for the United States, Mr. Smartypants Patriot Disser, what was it? I don’t know (It was the French).

Patriot Shames

Winston Churchill once observed that everyone claims to support free speech, even though it is painfully obvious that they do no such thing. That’s certainly the case in contemporary politics. The notion of free speech currently held dear by a lot of prominent self-righteous gum flappers boils down to this: “I have the inviolate liberty to say and do what I want, but you better just shut your pie hole. Or else.”

Churchill being Churchill, he was a skosh more eloquent than I. What he actually said was:  “Everyone is in favor of free speech … but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”  Well, we’ve had a week of free speech four-flushers positively vibrating with outrage because football players insist on deliberately disrespecting our flag, flouting our values, and insulting law enforcement officers and military veterans. What outrage do they commit to express such comprehensive contempt for all things American? They, um, silently take a knee during the national anthem.

Assuming a crouch while the notes of the sovereign hymnal hang in the air is seen by some as a grievous insult to the Republic and all it stands for. And while football players might be descending from the vertical quietly, the choleric response is rocketing skywards with a high-decibel roar. Many are now calling for sanctions, boycotts, and even pink slips — they actually want these individuals deprived of their employment because they sat down during a song. Chief among these, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is the president of the United States. Donald Trump is in high dudgeon over all this genuflecting on the gridiron, saying team owners should respond to such insolence by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired.”  It did not go unnoticed that his was a full-throated, no caveats denunciation of mostly black football players. There was none of the there’s-some-good-people-in-there equivocations bestowed upon the mayonnaise-hued tiki torch trust recently observed defending confederate statues and proposing a little light ethnic cleansing.

I’m not sure how silently planting a patella to convey a sincerely held view about racial inequity gets interpreted as a deliberate insult to the United States, the values it represents, and the people—especially in law enforcement and the military–who defend them. But so it goes. Some military and law enforcement veterans do seem to feel pretty sore about the whole deal. Others who wear, or have worn, a uniform seem to be saying, fair enough. First Amendment, land of the free and all that (I count myself among this latter group). I completely get disagreeing with the message, but responding to it with boiling outrage that Americans have the temerity to express a legitimate viewpoint and should be prevented or punished for doing so seems, well, kind of un-American.

And it’s worse than that. On some level, this whole debate is just silly. The message underlying the gesture has, at this point, largely been obscured. Egged on by our president, we’re now doing little more than playing nasty and vicious patriot games, groups at each other’s throats all because a few millionaires cop a squat during the jingoistic yodeling before a sporting event.  It’s kinda surreal, and makes one wonder why America is so uniquely insistent on mandatory public professions of patriotism every time someone blows air into a leather bladder. Other countries manage to put on domestic athletic contests without national anthems, flags the size of Delaware, fighter jets, and sundry collective affirmations of national self-worth.  Maybe we could follow their example and, you know, just play ball?

Fat chance. Poseur patriots are clamoring for politics to be taken out of the game, but certainly not all the symbolism about the polity. They want to keep the anthem and flag waving and its opportunities to deliver the shut-your-gob treatment to those who refuse to abide by the deferential norm. Sure, football players should be free to express a viewpoint, but not actually on a football field. They should do it outside the stadium on their own time. Hmmm. Well, I could be wrong here, but I’m pretty sure if jocks all over the country took to prostrating themselves alone in their kitchens it wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Tellingly, very few of those now taking umbrage at the knee droppers also seem to get huffy about players shoving their beliefs in our face when they credit a deity for the touchdown, gather for a prayer circle after the game, or pull a Tebow on national television.  The whole brouhaha seems less about players expressing a viewpoint to a sporting audience, than expressing a viewpoint that makes a big chunk of that audience uncomfortable.

Football players quietly refusing to place themselves in the upright and fully locked position during the national anthem represents no serious threat to the Republic. When people in high office stoke outrage at such expression, and explicitly call for those who articulate it to be coerced into censoring that expression—to threaten them with losing their livelihoods—well, now we are talking some measure of peril. Perhaps those screaming the loudest about American values should remember freedom of expression is one the most important of those values—even, and especially, when it is done in a place and a manner that some take offense to.

Bernie’s Wishful Notion Potions

 

I’m not sure if Bernie Sanders actually graduated from the Hogwarts Academy of Political Enchantment and Necromancy, but his level of magical thinking certainly puts him in Dumbledore cogitation territory. He seems to be thoroughly convinced that he can conjure up an American Denmark out of the Republic’s potions book. Um, yeah. Good luck with that.

Now, it’s possible that Bernie actually does know the location of some secret political Platform Nine and Three Quarters, a place where a solar-powered liberal locomotive will arrive complete with an organic treats trolley, the populace will happily pile on, and from thence be steamed off to some progressive Elysium while munching fair trade chocolate frogs. That makes about as much sense as some of Bernie’s policy proposals, proposals that grown-ups who should know better are starting to take way too seriously.

Case in point is Bernie’s current drive to implement a single-payer, universal healthcare system (you can watch him giving the basic pitch here). He’s tried this several times before. He supported the 1993 American Health Security Act, which was basically state-based universal health care coverage (you can read the full text of the bill here), and he went whole hog for socialized medicine in the American Health Care Security Act, a bill he introduced into the Senate in 2013 (actually the bill got pretty watered down, but if you want to see where he was coming from you can read his original proposal here ).

None of those efforts made much noise. In between torpedoing the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform efforts and sucking the soul out of Obamacare, partisan Dementors sent Bernie’s healthcare plans off to the congressional equivalent of Azkaban. Not this time. Bernie has roughly a third of the Democrats in the Senate signing on as co-sponsors of his new bill–including pretty much everyone being seriously considered as a 2020 presidential aspirant. The bill is the Medicare for All Act, the thrust of which is to, well, put everyone on Medicare. In a nutshell, the basic idea is for all of us to have the same basic health insurance plan, which will be provided by the United States government. None of that Obamacare shilly-shally, it’s on to that geezer pleaser, the doc-for-the-vox-populi plan for the lot of us.

How will that work? How much will it cost? Who’s going to foot the bill? What about Big Pharma, Big Med, and Big Insurance, won’t they have a big problem with it? Will the GOP make some political hay out of this and might it, perchance, cause some problems for the Democrats? In order, here are the answers: dunno, dunno, dunno, affirmative-roger-bingo, and, you bet your sweet bippy.

The dunnos are standard Bernie-gram policy communication. He is not known for letting irritating practical details get in the way of forcefully advocating sweeping reform. He is super-keen on loudly insisting government do something, but whispers inaudibly about all the practical particulars necessary to transform wish into reality. Indeed, he gets kind of snippy when people pester him with vexatious queries like, “How’s that gonna that work?” In this case, the plan seems to be that Congress declares health care a human right and everyone signs up for Medicare. And then … well, something, I guess. Maybe Bernie mutters a sotto voce incantation of “wingardium leviosa”, gives a swish of one of Mr. Olivander’s best wands, and yada, yada, yada, ol’ Doc Potter is standing by to write free prescriptions for the migraine I feel coming on.

Now a single-payer system is, in theory, not a bad idea. Actually, it’s a pretty good one. It can mean everyone gets basic health care coverage, and no one gets sent to the poor house, even when the doc takes a look at those lab results and diagnoses it as a virulent case of “cha-ching!” It’s not the idea that’s bad–I’m actually down with it. Nor is it the philosophical issue Bernie-types like to bang on about. In other words, the arguments over whether health care should be a human right, a universal privilege bestowed on all by a benevolent state out of noblesse oblige, or something like tacos and underpants, a good you purchase on your lonesome without tax-backed subsidies. Who cares as long as you can get reasonable access to healthcare services without risking penury? That, said, if Bernie does get this through, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him proposing free taco trucks on every corner and nationalizing Fruit of the Loom.

The real problem is not conceptual or philosophical, but practical. In a technical sense, how do you make it happen? In a political sense, how can you make this feasible? Answering the first question means figuring out how to blow up a sixth of the American economy and radically restructure it in a way that leaves everyone with decent healthcare. That’s tough. Real tough. It’ll require pols and policy wonks to put on their big boy pants and hammer out deals with the healthcare industry that many are not going to like.   Other countries have managed it, though, so surely with a skosh of Yankee ingenuity and can-do grit we can figure something out.  I suspect an answer to the second question, though, is simply out of reach. I just don’t see how this works politically.

Let’s take just one screamingly obvious political issue this proposal creates. Roughly 150 million Americans get their health insurance through their employers. And by all that Nate Silver calls holy, they seem to like those plans. The Bernie Bros—and remember, this now includes a big chunk of supposedly grownup Democratic senators—seem to think you can go out on the campaign trail and tell these people, “we’ve got this ace idea to take away your healthcare plans and put you all on Medicare! But don’t worry, your healthcare will be better. Or not. We’ll get back to you on that. But you definitely will pay less. Unless you pay more. Anyway, it’s a fabbo idea, so remember to vote for us!”

There is no doubt that huge numbers of sitting legislators are willing to go out into the 2018 midterms and hit that message hard, loud and relentlessly. And they are almost all Republicans. From a GOP perspective, this won’t cure the electoral damage of the Great Obamacare Repeal and Replace Fiasco and Masacree of 2017. But it might make it sting a bit less, or at least provide a reasonable campaign trail dodge to the effect that Republicans aren’t the only ones proposing to blow up the healthcare system without carefully thinking through details.

Let’s face it, Bernie hasn’t exactly been good for the Democratic Party. He winged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign pretty good, and looks set to put a lesser, but still potentially painful, burn on the Democrats with this healthcare push. But then again, I can’t fathom why anyone would think he might be good for the Democratic Party because, well, he’s not a Democrat. Granted, he plays one when it suits the purpose (Politifact says, at best, he’s an unenthusiastic,  reluctant and inconstant Democrat ). Near as I can figure, he’s an independent/Socialist who doesn’t like political parties, but is happy to take advantage of them. He likes to sit outside the system and rail at it and demand it should change. The problem is that while he’s pretty good at saying what he wants changed, he’s lousy at providing any realistic path to getting there. He just seems to think it will happen if only enough people want it to. What’s worrisome is that people who should know better are starting to take that whole idea seriously.

The click-your-heels-and-wish-real-hard school of politics, though, rarely achieves much. And until an Owl comes down your chimney with Medicare enrollment papers, I wouldn’t put too much faith in Bernie’s magical thinking.

The Art of the Squeal

People frequently and foolishly assume that the president of the United States holds enough power to get pretty much anything they want done. Presidents, presidential aspirants, and certainly a current 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue leaseholder I could name, frequently and foolishly encourage such bosh. Presidential power in fact is a surprisingly limited–and limiting–thing.

No one knew this better than Harry S. Truman, who famously grumbled that, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Truman predicted that his successor Dwight Eisenhower was going to have a rough adjustment period. Top ranking generals in the Army can act like real authoritarians. Presidents, not so much. “He’ll sit here and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ Truman snarkily predicted. “And nothing will get done.”

Truman’s words struck a particular chord with Richard Neustadt, who at the time (early 1950s) was a freshly minted Harvard PhD hanging around Truman’s White House as a special assistant. Neustadt was a political scientist who was unlike most of his academic tribe in that he spent a considerable amount of time interacting with actual politicians.1 Neustadt went on to become famous among my polyester-loving people (political scientists are called Das Sansabelt Volk in German) for writing the definitive book on presidential power. With the typical wit and wordplay that political scientists are known for, Neustadt titled his magnum opus, wait for it, Presidential Power.2

Joking aside, Neustadt’s book really is the definitive study of the subject and its conclusions about the actual power of the presidency shade astonishingly close to Truman’s cavils about the constraints of the office. When you get right down to it, the president’s formal powers are (at least in theory) pretty limited. He really hasn’t got the political juice to just make government do what he wants it to. He can’t make law and he can’t raise money. He has to get Congress to do that. He can veto things. But that just means admitting Congress wouldn’t do what he wanted. He can sign Executive Orders, which makes for a cool photo op, but is weak tea compared to actual legislation.

Neustadt argued that the real power of the presidency rested not on the formal tools of the office, but on three intangibles associated with whatever individual happened to occupy it: public esteem, professional reputation, and, above all, the ability to persuade. In short, the true source of a president’s influence is his (or her) deal-making skills. Powerful presidents are those that successfully nudge, nag or sway Congress into doing what they want them to do. To do that it helps to be popular with the public, it helps to have professional respect, but bottom line is you gotta be able to cut a deal.

Donald John Trump clearly lacks two of the three. His approval rating is lower than squid pee and rapidly diffusing into the salty currents of public opinion. His professional esteem basically rests on reality show star power—he rates, like, seven Lindsay Lohans on the TMZ Index of Sideshow Celebrity. His cred as some sort of business whiz, on the other hand, is pretty much PR and pixie dust. Between Trump University, Trump Steaks, Playboy videos, wrestling appearances, and the epilogue of his business books invariably concluding in Chapter 11, the president’s record as some sort of business titan covers more blemishes than Clearasil. Making a deal, though, that’s something he is supposed to be good at.

Except maybe he isn’t. Thus far, git-‘er-done deal making has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration. Deals have either never been made (health care), never got off the ground (making Mexico pay for that wall), or seem to exist completely in the never-never (NAFTA renegotiations). The central strategy of Trump’s deal making approach seems to involve royally pissing off all the important players he needs at the bargaining table, and heaping scorn on those who won’t do what he wants. And, well, maybe that works in the reality-TV-porno-business world. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is less the art of the deal than the art of the meal. It’s all about making sure you can get half a loaf. Trump seems to think the goal is to swipe the entire thing and gorge on it in front of the starving eyes of your vanquished foe.

Trump’s approach to deal making was in full head-scratching mode this week as he actually did cut a deal. With Democrats. The losers who left the bargaining table rattleboned and deprived of their much needed share of whole grain political carbohydrates were Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Trump blindsided them—and even members of his own cabinet—by agreeing to a Democratic plan to attach hurricane relief spending to a short-term (three month) increase in the debt ceiling. To put it mildly, that’s not what the GOP wanted. Ryan looked understandably constipated coming out of the meeting. He was so tight-lipped and monosyllabic he clearly was suffering from irritable vowel syndrome. McConnell looked even worse. He was so thin-lipped his incisors had practically disappeared up his nostrils, the tips just peeking out like some sort of angry vampire boogers.

In the short term this gives Trump, with some degree of credibility, the right to claim he cut a deal by shoving aside the status quo way of doing things. In other words, just the sort of shake-it-up, non-politician hoi polloi hogwash he was elected on. In the long-term it almost certainly reduces his ability, perhaps catastrophically, to make future deals with Congress. Even with his own party. Why would Ryan and McConnell trust Trump, let alone stick their necks out to carry his water when he’s just shown he’s perfectly willing to hold their heads under it? Sure, it’s plenty amusing to watch Democrats and committed anti-Trumpers like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi give props to the president—their words of praise mumbled like they were still dealing with the after-effects of a particularly nasty dental procedure. But as Trump has spent eight months heaping infamy and opprobrium on both their heads, they represent the minority party in congress, and, oh yeah, their voter base is seething with virulent anti-Donny sentiment, it’s hard to see this as a long-term deal making partnership.

The bottom line is that less than a year into his term, Trump has managed to seriously corrode his working relationship with just about everyone on Capitol Hill. It’s truly an awe-invoking accomplishment. And it’s seriously going to crimp his ability to cut deals. If that last remaining leg of the power source gives, Trump may prove to be a very weak president indeed. That’s what Truman and Neustadt would surely predict. This week’s gobsmacking smoochie with the Dems may simply be Trump hankering for a win at any price to prop up his fading art-of-the deal cred. If Congress decides to go its own way, though, Trump, like Truman, will find that it can make a president scream. So, no one should be surprised if Congress is about to give the president a lesson in the art of the squeal.

  1. I’m not joking. One of the things that most surprised me about becoming a professional student of politics is the relatively low levels of interaction between this set of academics and government officials. As a political reporter I’d spent years of my working life in the company of pols. I’ve met scads of political scientists who–I kid you not–have spent less time interacting with the humans who actually practice politics than I did in any randomly chosen week, and certainly any month, of my career as a journalist. It’s a weird world I inhabit.
  2. In later editions he jazzed it up a bit, using the snappier title Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. You can buy a copy here. Ignore my snotty editorializing about beige language—his main thesis holds up six decades on and is well worth the read.

Hurricane Hypocrisy Makes Landfall

 

 

When it rains it pours, unless it’s Texas. These days the Lone Star state is dealing with H2O in such brobdingnagian portions they’re figuring out ways to contain five barrels of water in a ten gallon hat. Never mind the impossibility of that Tardis-like volume-to-space ratio. It’s Texas. If it means helping a neighbor in need, they’ll get it done.

Yet while the good people of the Gulf Coast deal with disaster of Hurricane Harvey with a lot of laudable can-do grit and community comity, there’s a forecast of a political storm front blowing in, bringing sturm, drang, and the possibility of a category four casuistry cyclone. Yes it’s kind of depressing that politics has to stick its nose into all the come-together spirit many have displayed in a very difficult week. Big scale natural disasters, though, inevitably raise a holler for help from the gummint. And some of those now doing the hollering are increasing the chances political precipitation to better than 90 percent.

Actually, make it a 100 percent. There’s no doubt and virtually no disagreement that the federal government needs to get in there and help with the recovery efforts. The feds spent $60 billion-plus on relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Patching things up after Harvey’s devastation is likely to put at least as much of a dent in Uncle Sam’s wallet, but this is one of those big spending bills likely to have bipartisan support. Most people will not begrudge the federal government spending their hard earned tax dollars on rebuilding lives and communities walloped by a Revelations-level meteorological malevolency. You’d have to be a pretty unfeeling bastard to think otherwise.

Or the Texas Republican congressional delegation. A surprisingly large number of this crew (about 30) actually voted against the major relief package for Hurricane Sandy (the Disaster Appropriations Relief Act of 2013), including the state’s two current senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. There were two basic justifications given for this opposition. First, it’s a lot of money and maybe the federal government should figure out somewhere else to whack out a few tens of billions in the name of prudent book balancing. Second, there was a lot of bean counting ballyhooing that the Sandy relief bill was so packed with pork that adding a slice of lettuce and a tomato damn near made it a BLT. Cruz, especially, did a lot of puffing and pontificating about this latter point.

There are two big objections to these objections. To take the latter point first, the bill was not by any stretch of the imagination the bag of pork rinds and bacon bits Cruz made it out to be (he claimed two-thirds of it was not related to Sandy). The Congressional Research Service looked into this matter in some detail and found the bill was almost entirely focused on addressing the needs created by Sandy (read the report for yourself here). More generally, while certain conservatives were scuffing their cowboy boots and indulging in some lengthy green-shading and grand standing, victims of Hurricane Sandy were left swinging in the wind waiting for their government to help. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—a fellow conservative Republican—had a well-documented hissy over Congress’ reluctance to unchain its checkbook. For once, Christie deserved some sympathy.

As Cruz is finding out, principled objections to federal government over-spending and over-reach get overcome pretty damn quickly when the ruinous climatic calamity is slamming into your own state. I seriously doubt Sens. Cruz and Cornyn will respond to any fiduciary nitpicking over a Texas relief package with a principled conservative, “sure, let’s take an extra month or two and make sure we’re not spending a cent more than we need to.” Well, they won’t if their constituents have any say in the matter.

This is the problem with drinking the hard line, government-is-always-bad Kool Aid the Cruz’s and Cornyn’s flood politics with. Just as there no atheists in foxholes, hard core don’t-tread-on-me states’ rights types get pretty scarce on the ground when it’s fifteen feet under water. Some situations call for massive acts of collective action and the institution most capable of providing it is the government. When such situations occur, the old Reagan joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” just isn’t funny.  It’s not the free market that gets people out of a disaster zone.

The government responds to a calamity like Harvey by throwing resources at the problems of disaster victims—everything from local government first responders, to state troopers, to the feds with the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers. After the storm subsides, the federal gummint will be there in the form of the Federal Housing Administration, the Small Business Administration, special programs set up by the Internal Revenue Service to help with tax relief, the Department of Labor to help with income and job assistance, and a bunch of other programs and agencies mandated to help out (BTW if you’re in a Harvey-affected area and need of information on any of this, look here).

Here’s how a free market responds to something like Harvey: it figures out a way to make money off disaster victims. This is widely condemned as price gouging—and it’s happening right now in Texas. But what is currently jacking up the prices of a case of bottle water to $99, and will no doubt have sheet rock going for similar inflated prices within two months, is the exact same free market mechanism people like Cruz and Cornyn say the federal government should never interfere with. The market is simply allocating resources by obeying the law of supply and demand. Limited supply plus high demand equals gas going for, if some reports are accurate, twenty bucks a gallon. It’s unfair, it’s unjust and it’s taking advantage of people who can ill afford the hit. Well, yeah. That’s sort of how Wall Street works, too.

The point is not that markets are always bad and government is always good, or vice versa. That sort of either-or thinking is (a) dumb, and (b) sooner or later makes hypocrites of people on both sides of the divide. One of the few good things to come from Harvey is seeing people like Sen. Cruz recognize, however grudgingly, that the federal government isn’t simply the instrument of some freedom-killing Satan he routinely makes it out to be. Properly organized and funded, it’s also a pretty good mechanism to help out tons of people in very real need. Hopefully both Texas senators will remember this the next time a disaster hits a state that is not their own.

DONATE AND HELP: Dealing with something like Harvey is a collective effort, and I don’t just mean the folks on the ground and the rest of us acting collectively through government. A lot of good organizations are pitching in.  You can find a list of reputable (i.e. no scams) groups helping out Harvey victims here. Please consider donating.