Lunchtime Photo

National Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

A couple of days ago Paul Krugman wrote about the Trump double-cross:

Let’s talk about West Virginia, which went Trump by more than 40 percentage points, topped only by Wyoming. What did West Virginians think they were voting for?

They are, after all, residents of a poor state that benefits immensely from federal programs: 29 percent of the population is on Medicaid, almost 19 percent on food stamps. The expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare is the main reason the percentage of West Virginians without health insurance has halved since 2013.

....Trumpcare, the budget office tells us, would cause 23 million people to lose health insurance, largely through cuts to Medicaid....Then we need to add in the Trump budget, which calls for further drastic cuts in Medicaid, plus large cuts in food stamps and in disability payments. What would happen to West Virginia if all these Trump policies went into effect? Basically, it would be apocalyptic.

....So many of the people who voted for Donald Trump were the victims of an epic scam by a man who has built his life around scamming. In the case of West Virginians, this scam could end up pretty much destroying their state. Will they ever realize this, and admit it to themselves? More important, will they be prepared to punish him the only way they can — by voting for Democrats?

Since I happened to be chatting about this yesterday, I want to offer an alternative explanation for what's going on here. More accurately, I guess, it's a supplementary explanation, since there's not much question that Donald Trump has indeed pulled a very long con on voters like the ones in West Virginia.

Basically it's this: what do you expect if Democrats don't support their own policies? For the past five years, Republicans have battered Obamacare as the most horrific policy ever enacted. Democrats have—what? Hidden under rocks, mostly. Moderates looked at the polls and decided to avoid even talking about Obamacare. Progressives mostly scorned it as a piece of crap and spent their energy explaining why we should all support single-payer instead. So what's the result? Lots of people think Obamacare is horrific. After all, that's what one side says, and the other side hardly even fights back.

West Virginians on Medicaid probably have no idea they're getting it via Obamacare. West Virginians who buy insurance from Healthcare.gov probably have no idea they're insured via Obamacare. West Virginians who got a payroll tax break early in the Obama years probably have no idea they even got it, let alone that it came from Democrats. West Virginians who got new roads or schools from the stimulus program probably have no idea it came from Democrats. West Virginians who got an increase in the minimum wage in 2007-09 probably have no idea it was passed by Democrats.

On the other hand, they certainly do know that Obamacare is destroying the nation; that Democrats want to take away their guns; that Mexicans took away all their jobs; that Obama wanted to let a flood of ISIS terrorists into the country; and that fanatical leftists want to allow men into their daughters' bathrooms.

Republicans are going to say what they're going to say. There's not much you can do to stop them from lying. What you can do is to loudly and proudly demand credit for the stuff you've done. If no one really knows that you subsidized their insurance or provided them with Medicaid or raised their wages or built them new schools, you can hardly expect them to vote for you.

Eric Levitz argues today that Democrats need to campaign on lowering middle-class taxes:

The party has plenty of internal disagreements on pocketbook issues. But there is a broad consensus on Team Blue that the tax code should be more progressive. It shouldn’t be difficult for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to unite most elected Democrats around a tax-reform blueprint.

Such a plan could combine return-free filing with a massive increase in the tax credits for earned income and child care, financed by healthy increases in the taxation of high-income individuals and multi-million-dollar estates. The party could also go more ambitious, and offer a detailed plan for overhauling the tax system with an eye toward simplicity and progressivity.

Here's the problem with this: Middle-class Americans barely pay any federal income tax at all. Here's the data from the Tax Policy Center for 2013:

The income quintile in the dead middle pays 2.6 percent of its income in federal income taxes. How much less do even Democrats want to make it?

If liberals really want to have an impact on the middle class, they have to focus on other taxes. For the middle quintile, the payroll tax is about four times higher than the income tax. State sales taxes are in the same ballpark. Those are the taxes that matter. As far as the federal income tax goes, if Democrats really want to lower and simplify it, they should just propose a 0 percent rate up to an income of $100,000, along with an EITC that refunds money to the working poor. That would be pretty popular.

Of course, it would also mean that Democrats have decided to battle Republicans on their home field, which is probably a losing strategy. It also means they'll have a much harder time justifying single-payer health care, free college, subsidized daycare, and all the other stuff they support. Sure, they can pay for some of this stuff by raising taxes on the rich, but that only takes you so far.

If I had to guess, I'd say Democrats are better off focusing on more and better services for the middle class, not lower income taxes. That redistributes income at least as well as progressive tax rates. Probably better.

I have a new camera, so that means I need to update my camera gallery. This time I took a family photo, and then practiced my Photoshop skillz by erasing the background so they all look like they're floating in air. I'm really bad at this kind of thing because I can't draw a straight line with a mouse to save my life. So it was good practice even if it was kind of tedious.

Anyway, here it is: 80 years of Drum family cameras. More details in this old post if you're curious about them.

Here's a headline in the LA Times this morning:

Is this really true? I'm not so sure. What Trump demonstrated was big talk far more than big action. He signed a $110 billion weapons deal with the Saudis that was only a hair different from what Obama had agreed to. He announced a bunch of new business that would have happened with or without him. He supported the Saudi war in Yemen, but Obama did too. He visited all the usual places in Israel, just like Obama. He asked NATO countries to spend more on defense, just like Obama did. He played games with our Article 5 commitment, but afterward his aides made clear that nothing had changed.

Rhetorically, of course, Trump was very different indeed. Obama may have given the Saudis nearly everything they wanted, but Trump explicitly said he didn't care about their human rights abuses. John Kerry worked endlessly on a peace deal in Israel, but he did it quietly. Trump blared his commitment to PEACE at every opportunity. Obama pushed our NATO allies to spend more on defense, but Trump gave a loud public speech about it.

Rhetoric matters, for good and ill, but the truth is that Trump's rhetoric wasn't accompanied by much in the way of action.1 In terms of what the US actually plans to do, there really hasn't been much change so far.

1The biggest substantive difference is the possibility of US withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. However, Trump hasn't announced his decision about that yet.

Donald Trump has a long history of tweeting nonsense, but this might be his most unbelievable tweet ever:

Uh huh. I'll bet he's going to dive right into that report. He lives for this kind of bedside reading.

In other news, you can ignore all that Kushner stuff you've been reading about. The Times and the Post are just inventing it. "It is very possible that those sources don't exist but are made up by fake news writers," Trump says. I'm glad he's finally put this to rest.

Here's an interesting new tidbit on the Jared Kushner front. The New York Times account of Kushnergate says that the reason Kushner wanted to set up backchannel comms to Russia was so that Michael Flynn could hold private conversations about Syria. The Times didn't characterize their sources for this information, but it turns out it was people providing Kushner's side of the story. So why didn't this detail make it into the Washington Post story?

So these sources said Kushner was setting up a channel to talk about Syria, which sounds fairly benign. But they refused to allow themselves to be quoted even as "sources close Kushner" or somesuch. So the Post passed.

Obviously this makes a difference. If the Syria story is Kushner's alibi, it means a lot less than it would if it came from some relatively neutral source who happened to know what was going on. Discount it accordingly.

Last night the Washington Post and the New York Times both reported that Jared Kushner buttonholed the Russian ambassador last December about setting up a secret communications backchannel with Moscow. This was during the transition period, six or seven weeks before Trump was inaugurated. The stories differ in the details they provide:

  • The Times reports that the purpose of the backchannel was for Michael Flynn to discuss Syria, but doesn't report how the backchannel would work.
  • The Post reports that Kushner proposed using secure facilities in the Russian embassy, but doesn't report what Kushner wanted to talk about.

The White House has not denied this story. It has simply refused to comment.

What do we make of this? Even after pondering it for several hours, I'm not sure what to think. I assume the Post has good sources for its report that Kushner wanted to use Russian embassy facilities, which suggests he was looking for a channel that was safe from monitoring—and leaking—by American intel agencies. In fact, the Post directly asserts this. But if the Times is right about Syria, that doesn't make sense. There have been a lot of leaks recently, but not last December. And certainly there was no reason to suspect that any intel agency would leak conversations about Syria.

So maybe they really wanted to talk about something else. But what? It would need to be something that was (a) highly sensitive, and (b) dodgy enough that some do-gooder in the intel community might feel like it needed to be leaked. There's been plenty of speculation about what that could be, but nothing grounded in reporting.

Also unknown: did Trump know about this? Or were Kushner and Flynn freelancing?

Also: what was the rush? In a few weeks Trump would have access to all the secure comms he wanted. Why was it so urgent to have galactic-class secure comms right away?

And: who wrote the anonymous letter that first tipped off the Post in mid-December?

The whole thing will remain something of a mystery until we know more about it. However the Post reports that the Russian ambassador was taken aback by Kushner's naivete in thinking that Russia might agree to expose its embassy facilities to an American. Subsequent commenters have used stronger terms than naivete.

Also, everyone agrees that Kushner's multiple meetings with various Russians were withheld from his security clearance application. That's not good.

On Donald Trump:

President Trump reportedly complained to world leaders about roadblocks he has faced setting up golf courses in the European Union....“Every time we talk about a country, he remembered the things he had done. Scotland? He said he had opened a club. Ireland? He said it took him two and a half years to get a license and that did not give him a very good image of the European Union,” a source told Le Soir.

On Jared Kushner:

Harleen Kahlon was an experienced digital media maven when she was hired by Kushner in 2010 to boost the paper’s digital outreach....At the end of the year, when she went to collect her performance bonus at his real estate office for meeting agreed upon metrics on page views and audience growth, Kushner told her that they couldn’t pay, citing financial concerns, and asked her to “take one for the team.”

....Just before the election, Kahlon described her former boss on Facebook thusly: “We’re talking about a guy who isn’t particularly bright or hard-working, doesn’t actually know anything, has bought his way into everything ever (with money he got from his criminal father), who is deeply insecure and obsessed with fame (you don’t buy the NYO, marry Ivanka Trump, or constantly talk about the phone calls you get from celebrities if it’s in your nature to ‘shun the spotlight’), and who is basically a shithead.

On Trump again:

After the "family photo" group shot, the other leaders convivially walked down the narrow Sicilian streets to their luncheon. Trump hung back and, minutes later, opted instead to ride in a golf cart.

Low energy. Sad.

The Wall Street Journal provides an example of the criticism leveled at Donald Trump's press operation:

Some Trump advisers have also questioned the judgment of communications officials, citing as an example the rollout of a tax-plan outline in April that featured Goldman Sachs alumnae Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, and Gary Cohn, the National Economic Council director.

“The left is automatically going to say the tax plan is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. And we just gave them an image of the rich and of Wall Street,” one Trump former campaign official said.

First off, who else is going to roll out a tax plan? The Secretary of Defense?

Second, the left isn't automatically going to say the tax plan is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. We're going to say that if it actually is tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. But the confusion here is easy to understand since Republican plans are always tailored to the rich and to Wall Street. That makes it hard to parse responses from the left, I suppose.