I'm not on the entertainment beat, but I was thinking yesterday about Sunday's massive FUBAR at the Academy Awards from a failure analysis point of view. It's remarkable the number of things that had to go wrong:

  • There should never have been two sets of envelopes (one for each side of the stage). Things should have been set up backstage so that presenters all go through a single point, receive their envelope, and then walk to whichever wing they're going to enter from. This is pretty simple stuff, but for decades the Academy didn't take the possibility of failure seriously enough to do it.
  • The accountant from PWC had to be a moron who spent so much time tweeting pictures from backstage that he lost track of his envelopes.
  • Warren Beatty, who plainly saw that he had the wrong award, had to be unwilling to embarrass himself by leaving the stage to get the right one.
  • Faye Dunaway must have been inattentive enough to take a quick glance at the card, see the words "La La Land" beneath Emma Stone's name, and then read it off since it fit with everyone's expectations.
  • Finally, both PWC accountants, who knew immediately that the wrong movie had been announced, were apparently so flummoxed that they froze, instead of immediately alerting someone or even walking on stage themselves to tell the presenters they had it wrong.

This is an impressive list, and it encompasses an impressive number of modes of failure. You have denial. You have idiocy. You have fear of embarrassment. You have a disposition to accept conventional wisdom even in the face of obvious contrary evidence. And you have good old deer-in-headlights syndrome, which turns ordinary failures into spectacular calamities.

All of the first four had to go wrong for this to happen in the first place, and the fifth had to be added to turn it into a fiasco. You'd think the odds would be at least a million-to-one against. But that vastly underrates our human ability to screw up. It turns out it was more like a thousand-to-one.

Hey, Mr. President, where is the money going to come from for that $54 billion increase in the defense budget?

“The money is going to come from a revved-up economy,” Mr. Trump said on Fox and Friends when asked where he would find the budget cuts. “I mean, you look at the kind of numbers we’re doing, we were probably GDP of a little more than 1%. And if I can get that up to three, maybe more, we have a whole different ballgame.”

His words were the latest example of the president offering a conflicting point of view from a member of his cabinet. On Monday, his director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, said nondefense agencies were being asked to find cuts to offset the boost to defense.

What do you think the strategy is here? Or is there one? I mean, this business of Trump directly contradicting something his staff says—or vice versa—has happened way too often to be a coincidence. Is it designed to confuse everyone so that nobody knows what to protest? Or is it just incompetence? Or is it a clever strategy of always saying the least objectionable thing possible whenever he's on a TV show watched by his base?

I suppose the smart money is on incompetence. Occam's Razor and all that. But I'm going with the third option. I think Trump lets his staff dole out bad news, which will show up at the New York Times, but personally presents the same news in the best possible light whenever he's on friendly TV turf. He won't be questioned about it, and his base will be reassured that everything is fine. If the eggheads all get into a tizzy over this on their blogs and newspaper columns, who cares?

In any case, what's really amazing is how much nonsense Trump was able to pack into two sentences:

  • He is directly contradicting the statement of his OMB director less than 24 hours before.
  • He can't increase the defense budget by $54 billion anyway, since that would violate the Budget Control Act.
  • His plan to get real GDP growth up to 3 percent is a ridiculous fantasy.

Impressive! No wonder he's so good at Twitter.

Here are the top ten Republican accomplishments of 2017 so far:

  1. Trump signs executive order on immigration, but it's so badly drafted it causes chaos around the country and is immediately put on hold by court.
  2. Trump chooses crackpot as National Security Advisor, fires him three weeks after inauguration.
  3. Trump tries to bully China by playing games with One China policy, is forced into humiliating retreat after realizing he's playing out of his league.
  4. Paul Ryan proposes border adjustment tax to raise $1 trillion, but can't convince anyone to sign on.
  5. Trump casually green-lights raid on Yemen over dinner, it turns into an epic disaster that kills a SEAL and accomplishes nothing.
  6. Trump blathers about the wall and a 20 percent border tax on Mexico, causing the Mexican president to cancel a planned visit.
  7. Congress goes into recess, but Republicans are embarrassingly forced to cancel town hall events because they're afraid of facing big crowds opposed to their policies.
  8. Trump continues to claim that crime is skyrocketing; that he won a huge election victory; that his inauguration crowd was immense; that polls showing his unpopularity are fake; and that refugees have wreaked terror on America, despite the fact that these are all easily-checkable lies.
  9. After weeks of confusion on their signature priority, Republicans finally realize that repealing Obamacare isn't all that easy and basically give up.
  10. Trump proposes spending an extra $54 billion on defense without realizing he can't do that.

Have either Trump or the Republican Congress done anything yet that's been both successful and non-routine? Unless I'm forgetting something big, it's just been one failure after another for the past two months. And that's not even counting all the day-to-day idiocy coming out of the White House ("enemy of the people," Sweden, "so-called judge," Bowling Green massacre, national security confabs at Mar-a-Lago restaurant, etc.).

Help me out here. Am I missing some big success?

The Hill reports that Obamacare replacement has taken yet another hit:

The chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee said Monday he would vote against a draft ObamaCare replacement bill that leaked last week. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), head of the 172-member committee, said Monday his opposition stems from the draft bill's use of refundable tax credits.
 
"There are serious problems with what appears to be our current path to repeal and replace Obamacare. The draft legislation, which was leaked last week, risks continuing major Obamacare entitlement expansions and delays any reforms," Walker said in a statement Monday.

Refundable tax credits are the mechanism for funding the Republican replacement plan. So what Walker is saying is that he opposes any plan that spends money.

The only alternative, of course, is a plan that costs nothing, which would be suicidal for Republicans. Even Donald Trump couldn't bluster his way into convincing people that a zero-dollar plan would help them compared to what they have now.

Republicans are really truly in a pickle. Here are their options:

  • Leave Obamacare alone. This would obviously enrage their base.
  • Repeal Obamacare and propose a replacement acceptable to conservatives. This would be so obviously useless that everyone outside their base would be enraged.
  • Repeal Obamacare with no replacement. But since Republicans can only repeal parts of Obamacare while leaving other parts alone, this runs the risk of imploding the entire individual insurance market. That would be an electoral disaster.

It's no wonder that Paul Ryan feels so backed into a corner that his latest "strategy" is to bull through a repeal-and-delay bill—and then dare anyone in the GOP caucus to vote against it. It's a desperate ploy that's bound to both fail and to piss off a lot of his fellow Republicans in the process. But what choice does he have? He has to pretend to do something.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Former Utah Gov. and ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is in talks to be the No. 2 at the State Department, U.S. officials said Monday....The search for the deputy secretary of state has continued after President Donald Trump rejected Elliott Abrams, who had the backing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

This is nuts. How do you go from Elliott Abrams to Jon Huntsman? This is like deciding to buy a Hummer and then changing your mind and deciding that a Prius is a better fit after all. Does Tillerson have any idea what he really wants? Or is this coming from Trump, who thinks that Huntsman has that central casting look he's so fond of in his cabinet?

Dave Weigel recaps all the currents that flowed around the Ellison-Perez contest for DNC chair, and covers most of the bases very nicely. One of those bases, of course, is that Ellison was the Bernie guy and Perez was the Hillary guy. Josh Marshall comments:

The Democratic party will have a hard time moving forward if every contest must be reduced and simplified into a replay of the 2016 primary battle.

That's true, but you know what? It's only been a few months since the election. These things take time. All things considered, Democrats are in surprisingly fine fettle considering just how thoroughly they've been tromped over the past few years and how little time has passed since Donald Trump won. A few high-profile lefties have been complaining about Keith Ellison's loss and how it proves the Democratic Party is a pawn of Wall Street etc. etc., but the emphasis here should be on "few." And those few are mostly people who had no patience for mainstream liberalism anyway. All things considered, there's been very little blowback from Tom Perez's win. Nearly everybody seems pretty anxious to move on and win some elections.

One other point while I'm on the subject. Marshall also says this:

I think most Democrats realize or believe that the politics of the Obama era will not be the politics that is necessary in the post-Obama era. But probing beneath that general agreement is where things get more contentious. For many on the left of the party — and broadly speaking, the Sanders wing of the party — this isn't some evolutionary development or a general insufficiency of the Obama era. Obama's incrementalist, cautious policy approach — deemed "neo-liberal" in its policy particulars — is what made Trumpism possible, they argue. So Obama-ism it is not just outdated or insufficient. It is the cause of the present crisis and must be specifically repudiated before the party can move forward.

For a long time, one of the favorite tropes of centrist columnists was that Republicans needed a candidate who was fiscally conservative but socially liberal. This was primarily because these columnists themselves were fiscally conservative but socially liberal. Someone,1 however, pointed out that exactly the opposite approach was more likely to succeed with actual voters: fiscally liberal but socially conservative. And roughly speaking, that's how Trump campaigned.2 By adding a wall and an immigration ban to the normal conservative stew, he was, in effect, more socially conservative than even a guy like Ted Cruz. Fiscally, however, he was relatively liberal for a Republican. Sure, he yakked about the national debt, but he also promised not to touch Social Security or Medicare; he wanted to tear down Obamacare but was vocal about replacing it with something even better; he wanted a surge in Pentagon spending; he touted a huge infrastructure spending plan; and he promised tax cuts for all.

Roughly speaking, the fiscally conservative/socially liberal quadrant describes libertarians, who have spent decades trying to gather a following but haven't succeeded anywhere in the world, as far as I know. It's literally the only quadrant of this matrix that's clearly a loser. Conversely, the basic Democrat and basic Republican quadrants have attracted plenty of followers. The only one that's never really been tried recently is the Donald Trump quadrant.

But if it weren't for the hammerlock of the two-party system, it's long been viewed as a very plausible winning combination—and Trump just proved it could be. But he pulled this off by taking advantage of his rare ability to work around the traditional parties, not because of a backlash to the "neoliberalism" of the Obama era. White working-class voters have been fleeing the Democratic Party for decades, but not because Democrats were too stingy. It was because they were too friendly to gays, too prone to spending welfare money on blacks, and wanted to take their guns away. Donald Trump fixed all that.

POSTSCRIPT: When I say that the DNC race ended amicably, I mean that it was relatively small beer compared to lots of intra-Democratic battles of the past. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd maybe give it a 3. However, I'm willing to change my mind if someone who's been closer to these battles over the past few decades disagrees. How about Ed Kilgore? I'd trust his judgment on this.

1Sorry, I don't remember who. It probably came from more than one person.

2Whether he governs that way remains to be seen.

I have finally figured out who Donald Trump reminds me of. He's a dumb version of Robert Moses.

This is a relief. It's been burrowing around in the back of my mind for a long time, but I couldn't quite place who I was thinking of. This should free up some space in my brain for further incisive political comparisons.

We learned today that President Trump wants to increase defense spending by $54 billion. How much is that, anyway?

This is tricky. Normally, you'd just take a look at defense spending over the past decade or so and see how it compares to the trend. However, ever since 9/11, a big chunk of defense spending has been for "Overseas Contingency Operations," known to the rest of us as "wars." You don't want to count that as part of the baseline. On the other hand, the OCO account sometimes acts as a sort of slush fund for ordinary spending, which basically hides increases in baseline defense expenditures.

With that caveat in mind, here is baseline defense spending since 2001:1

There are two ways you can look at this:

  • All this is doing is getting defense spending back up to its Obama-era levels prior to the sequester.
  • Yikes! That's a 45 percent increase since 2001.

Do we really need to be spending 45 percent more than we did in 2001 for baseline defense? Remember, if we decide to invade Iraq and take their oil, that would get funded separately. The baseline budget is just to support basic military readiness.

I guess we can all make up our own minds about this, though I can't say that I've heard any persuasive arguments that the Pentagon is truly suffering too much with a $550 billion budget. The real question is whether Trump's $54 billion increase can get through Congress. Normally, Republicans would pass it via reconciliation and they wouldn't need any Democratic votes. However, this increase would blow past the sequester limits put in place in 2013, and this can only be done via regular order.2 That means Republicans need at least eight Democratic votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.

Normally, they could probably get that. But if they try to balance this $54 billion increase with a $54 billion cut to the EPA and safety net programs, there are very few Democrats who will play ball. So what's the plan here?


1Historical budget authority here. OCO levels here. I adjusted for inflation using the GDP deflator. This seemed more appropriate than consumer inflation measures like CPI and PCE, but it doesn't actually make much difference. They all show pretty similar inflation levels over a short period like this.

2Though I admit I can't find an authoritative confirmation of this. I think that any spending above the sequestration levels can be filibustered, but I'd appreciate confirmation from someone knowledgeable about this. The sequester applies only to discretionary spending, and it's possible that Republicans can add $54 billion to defense if they slash $54 billion from mandatory spending elsewhere.

UPDATE: OK, Stan Collender confirms that spending above the sequester caps can filibustered. If Stan says it's true, then it's true. He goes on to say that the only options for Republicans are (a) to put the increase in the OCO fund, or (b) to authorize the spending, trigger the sequester, and then for Trump to ignore the sequester. They're both illegal, but it's hard to tell if anyone cares these days.

President Trump long ago gave up on the fib he told repeatedly throughout the campaign about having a secret plan to defeat ISIS. There was never any plan, so now it's up to the Pentagon to come up with one. They should have it ready for Trump in a few days, and this morning the LA Times gives us a preview:

The month-long strategic review, which Trump requested Jan. 28, is expected to include proposals to send more U.S. troops to both countries, deploy more U.S. forces near the front lines, give greater authority to ground commanders, and possibly provide weapons to Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

....U.S. analysts said they don’t expect the new plan to differ dramatically from the Obama administration’s approach, at least in Iraq.

No, of course it won't differ much from Obama's approach. That's because Obama's approach is pretty much the only possible approach unless you're willing to send tens of thousands of front-line troops to Iraq to do the fighting. Nobody, including Trump, is willing to do that, so you're left with only tweaks here and there. A few more advisors, an uptick in bombing runs, small changes in the rules of engagement, etc. That's been true from the start.

Trump, of course, will sell his base on the fiction that this plan is a radical toughening up of Obama's feckless approach, and they'll believe him. Eventually it will work, whether or not they make changes to Obama's plan, and then Trump will crow endlessly that this is what happens when you put a man of action in the White House. Sigh.

OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG. We are all so screwed.