The Players

Count the editors of the New York Times among those who see the IG’s report as complete exoneration. Here’s a round-up of the NYT’s opinion page this morning:

Editorial, “No, Hillary Clinton’s Emails Will Never Go Away”
David Leonhardt, “The Report’s Real Message: Trump Is Lying”
James Comey, “This Report Says I Was Wrong. But That’s Good for the F.B.I.”

The reaction of the editors of the Washington Post is somewhat more balanced:

The valid, nonpolitical lesson arising from the inspector general’s report is that the FBI needs to be better prepared to handle politically sensitive investigations. The agency must take special care not to affect elections. It should shy from making statements about people not charged with crimes, and major announcements should be vetted carefully through the Justice Department hierarchy. As for FBI officials, they can have personal views, but they should refrain from saying careless things even in private.

While the editors of the Wall Street Journal saw the report quite differently:

The long-awaited Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation makes for depressing reading for anyone who cares about American democracy. Self-government depends on public trust in its institutions, especially law enforcement. The IG’s 568-page report makes clear that the FBI under former director James Comey betrayed that public trust in a way not seen since J. Edgar Hoover.

We use the Hoover analogy advisedly, realizing that the problem in this case was not rampant illegal spying. Though IG Michael Horowitz’s conclusions are measured, his facts are damning. They show that Mr. Comey abused his authority, broke with long-established Justice Department norms, and deceived his superiors and the public.

While the IG says Mr. Comey’s decisions were not the result of “political bias,” he presided over an investigating team that included agents who clearly were biased against Donald Trump. The damage to the bureau’s reputation—and to thousands of honest agents—will take years to repair.

The issue of political bias is almost beside the point. The IG scores Mr. Comey for “ad hoc decisionmaking based on his personal views.” Like Hoover, Mr. Comey believed that he alone could protect the public trust. And like Hoover, this hubris led him to make egregious mistakes of judgment that the IG says “negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.”

I’ll quote blogospheric reactions as time allows.

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Rashomon on the Potomac

I don’t believe I have ever encountered a more Rashomon-like reaction to anything than the reaction to the Inspector General’s report on the FBI investigation of the Clinton email server and former Director James Comey’s actions in 2016. To refresh your memory Rashomon is a Kurosawa movie about a rape and murder. Over the course of the movie each character relates his or her account of the incidents and they could hardly be more divergent. The movie was remade here as The Outrage, an early feature performance by William Shatner.

The complete text of the report is here. Of the 500 some-odd pages, I have read the 12 page “Executive Summary” and a few select passages.

Some people, particularly those who are anti-Trump, see it as a complete exoneration of the FBI and the investigation. Consider these statements, from the “Conclusions” beginning on p. 497:

While we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions we reviewed in Chapter Five, the conduct by these employees cast a cloud over the entire FBI investigation and sowed doubt about the FBI’s work on, and its handling of, the Midyear investigation. It also called into question Strzok’s failure in October 2016 to follow up on the Midyear -related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop. The damage caused by these employees’ actions extends far beyond the scope of the Midyear investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral factfinding and political independence.

or this

While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part, we nevertheless concluded that by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and Department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the Department as fair administrators of justice.

While those on the other side see it as a scathing indictment of the FBI in general and Comey in particular. Consider this passage in discussion of Comey’s July remarks

A statement that the sheer volume of information classified as Secret supported an inference of gross negligence was removed and replaced with a statement that the classified information they discovered was “especially concerning because all of these emails were housed on servers not supported by full-time staff”;

this

As we describe in Chapters Two and Seven of our report, the prosecutors analyzed the legislative history of Section 793(f)(1), relevant case law, and the Department’s prior interpretation of the statute. They concluded that Section 793(f)(1) likely required a state of mind that was “so gross as to almost suggest deliberate intention,” criminally reckless, or “something that falls just short of being willful,” as well as evidence that the individuals who sent emails containing classified information “knowingly” included or transferred such information onto unclassified systems.

or this which I think is the best and most important statement I encountered in the report

Comey’s description of his choice as being between “two doors,” one labeled “speak” and one labeled “conceal,” was a false dichotomy. The two doors were actually labeled “follow policy/practice” and “depart from policy/practice.” Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment.

Said another way there is plenty of room for both reactions. I honestly don’t know what to think.

How does one interpret actions that are inherently political? Where do you draw the line between actions that made certain political assumptions and political bias?

There are some important omissions and, I think, outright errors of law. For example, a commonplace method of inferring motive is that motive may be imputed from a pattern of action. That applies both to Sec. Clinton and to Mr. Comey.

The recommendations in the IG report will probably result in dismissals but IMO are unlikely to result in any criminal prosecutions. While falling short of the bill of criminal particulars that some wanted it also falls short of the complete exoneration that others wanted.

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Chicago’s Getting Boring

The Boring Company, that is. We’ve hired it. From Bloomberg:

Elon Musk’s Boring Co. is the winner in a bid to build a multibillion-dollar high-speed express train to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The result gives the young company a big boost in legitimacy as it tries to get transportation projects underway in Los Angeles and Washington.

The company beat out a consortium that included Mott MacDonald, the civil engineering firm that designed a terminal at London’s Heathrow Airport, and JLC Infrastructure, an infrastructure fund backed by former basketball star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, people with knowledge of the matter said. The city is expected to announce the news as soon as Thursday, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly.

I wonder what Chicago is going to do when The Boring Company goes bankrupt. Or what The Boring Company is going to do when Chicago goes bankrupt. It’s a race! A match made in heaven. Or somewhere.

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The Pro-War Lobby

There is a group of politicians and pundits who consistently speak or write in favor of war with Iran. They will accept nothing less. There is another group who come out consistently in support of war with North Korea. How much overlap there is between those two groups I’m not really sure. There is yet another group who never met a war they didn’t like. They’d favor going to war with Nauru if they’d ever heard of it.

One of these days I should write a post and name names. Until that time just keep that in mind when you read this pundit or that pundit making very aggressive remarks about this country or that country. And that war should be a last resort not just another foreign policy tool.

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MBS’s War Against Yemen

The editors of the Washington Post declaim:

Congress, which has long been uneasy with U.S. support for the Yemen war, must now act. All funding for U.S. support for the intervention should be halted and further arms sales put on hold until the offensive ends, humanitarian assistance flows freely and peace talks are underway.

I agree. Mohammed Bin Salman started this war under the narrowest of pretexts. He is no liberal and, regardless of his public relations tour, he is not our friend. Not only should we stop supporting his war in Yemen, we should reconsider our aid to Saudi Arabia.

But let’s not try to turn support for MBS’s war on Yemen into a partisan issue. Obama’s drone war was one of the factors that contributed to destabilizing Yemen in the first place. Supporting MBS’s war was a bipartisan blunder and it deserves a bipartisan solution.

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The Warning

In his New York Times column Frank Bruni warns the Democrats:

Dear Robert De Niro, Samantha Bee and other Trump haters:

I get that you’re angry. I’m angry, too. But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning. You think you’re raising your fist when you’re really raising a white flag.

You’re right that Donald Trump is a dangerous and deeply offensive man, and that restraining and containing him are urgent business. You’re wrong about how to go about doing that, or at least you’re letting your emotions get the better of you.

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves. Many voters don’t hear your arguments or the facts, which are on your side. They just wince at the din.

One rightwinger has said it more concisely: all that Democrats need to do to beat Trump is not act crazy and they can’t even do that. Demorats will never beat the Republicans or Donald Trump by acting a lot crazier than they do. Americans like to feel safe. Trump is a disruptor. “Safe” isn’t his shtick. You won’t make Americans feel safer by frothing at the mouth and spewing obscenities.

For goodness sake, Democrats, keep your crazy old people in the attic. Start with Maxine Waters. She will do you no good.

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Why Oceans 8 Will Succeed

I wanted to make some remarks about the new movie Oceans 8 and why I think it will succeed where the Ghostbusters reboot failed.

1. Blasphemy

The old Rat Pack Oceans 11 is beloved to some but it never had the sort of cult following that the original Ghostbusters did. Remaking Ghostbusters with a female cast was seen as a sort of blasphemy by the fans of the original and they mobilized against it. That didn’t happen with Oceans 8.

2. Proven boxoffice

The primary cast of Oceans 8—Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, and Anne Hathaway—are all proven boxoffice draws. I’m sure Melissa McCarthy has her fans but not nearly as many of them as the bona fide stars in O8. And then there’s Rihanna.

3. Talent

The top-billed cast members of O8 are all Oscar winners. The cast members of the Ghostbusters reboot, well, aren’t. And it would probably take a truck to haul around all of the awards of the O8 cast—Rihanna’s alone are formidable.

4. Glamor

It’s not just looks but glamor. The cast of O8 is glamorous and the the cast of the Ghostbusters reboot isn’t. And O8 has cameos by a significant number of top models to boot. In a way it reminds me of one of the old 1930s women’s movies that had a fashion show embedded in it. Not to put too fine a point on it but glamor in the movies is still important. Movies are entertainment, for goodness sake.

And then there are all the factors I mentioned when the Ghostbusters reboot came out. Action comedy is a tough genre and doesn’t do great international boxoffice. It was too expensive to make. Who its producers thought its audience would be is puzzling. Certainly not fans of the original.

That’s why I’m confident that O8 will make money where the Ghostbusters reboot flopped.

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The Bad News

Spurred by the bad news in the Social Security and Medicare Trustees’ Report, released a few weeks ago, James Capretta writes at RealClearPolicy:

Taken together, the combined unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are more than $50 trillion, according to official government projections. Unsettling as these estimates are, they are probably optimistic — for two reasons.

First, the Medicare projections assume deep, permanent, and on-going cuts in payment rates for physicians and hospitals that are difficult to believe will be implemented.

He then goes on to summarize the changes that are coming down the pike:

Beginning in 2026, physicians who participate in what are called “alternative payment models” can get annual fee increases of 0.75 percent, while those who don’t will get increases of 0.25 percent each year. These payment increases would be well below the expected medical inflation rate of 2.2 percent, which means physicians would get a real cut in payment rates from Medicare each and every year.

and then falls into a trap commonplace in writing about our health care system. What effect will lowering the rate of increase in Medicare reimbursements have? Will it raise non-Medicare health care prices as he asserts, will it have no effect on them, or will it slow their rate of increase, too? We have no real idea. I think that the available evidence suggests it will lower them but we don’t have a great deal of evidence available.

He continues:

The second reason that both the Social Security and Medicare projections may be optimistic is the recent news of declining birth rates. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that the birth rate in the U.S. is now at its lowest level in 40 years. In 2017, the total fertility rate (measured as total births per 1000 women of child-bearing age) was 1.76, down from 2.07 in 2008 and far below the population replacement level of 2.1.

I think that lack of hope is the likely explanation but it’s possible that Millennials are just waiting for their millions to start rolling in before having children, for which I blame the weak state of high school education in the U. S.

As I’ve been saying for more than 20 years a single-payer system isn’t nearly enough to dig us out of the hole we’ve been digging for ourselves for the last 45 years. We need a single-payer system committed to reducing costs, something I find extremely unlikely.

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Milking the System

In case you’re wondering where I stand in the U. S.-Canadian Cheese War, I don’t think that the United States should subsidize dairy production and I don’t think that Canada should impose 250%+ tariffs on U. S. dairy products. Both the U. S. and Canada are playing within the rules by their actions as is Trump in saying that the Canadians aren’t playing fair. Sometimes playing within the rules isn’t enough.

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So You Want to Be an Idealist

Writing at the New York Times David Brooks paints a rosy picture of the old, longed-for days of foreign policy idealism:

The postwar order was a great historic achievement. The founding generation built a series of organizations and alliances to fight communism, create a stable trading system, combat global poverty and promote democracy.

But the next generation lost the thread.

European elites were so afraid of nationalism that they fell for the illusory dream of convergence — the dream that nations could effortlessly merge into a cosmopolitan Pan-European community. Conservatives across the Western world became so besotted with the power of the market that they forgot what capitalism is like when it’s not balanced by strong communities.

Progressives were so besotted with their own educated-class expertise that they concentrated power upward and away from the people at the same time that technology was pushing power downward and toward the people. Elites of all stripes were so detached they didn’t see how untrammeled meritocracy divides societies between the “fittest” and the rest.

[…]

The Group of 7 is an organization built in a high-trust age. It’s based on the idea that the member nations have shared values, have shared historical accomplishments, have a carefully nurtured set of relationships and live in a community of general friendship. Canada and the U.S. are neighbors and friends.

I think that David Brooks has spent too much time reading the press releases and not nearly enough observing what the countries of the world do.

It didn’t just start in 2017. Go all the way back to the Suez Crisis and you’ll see that the countries of the world operate according to their gross, greedy national interests regardless of the rules. If Egypt had played by the rules, it wouldn’t have nationalized the Suez Canal. If France and the United Kingdom had played by the rules, they wouldn’t have attacked Egypt without Security Council authorization.

If the U. S. had played by the rules, it wouldn’t have attempted to overthrow the Cuban government in the Bay of Pigs incident or gone to war in Vietnam.

The Soviet Union’s invading Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 or Afghanistan in 1979 wasn’t playing by the rules.

More recently intervening in the civil war in Yugoslavia without Security Council authorization was not playing by the rules.

Bombing government facilities in Yugoslavia is not playing by the rules.

Siding with the rebels against the Libyan government is not playing by the rules which allowed Britain, France, and the United States to intervene for the narrow purpose of protecting civilians not to overthrow the Libyan government.

Invading Iraq was not playing by the rules.

Engaging in military action in Syria is against the rules.

Selling Iran and North Korea the materials they needed for their nuclear development programs was against the rules.

China’s not living up to its WTO commitments and subsidizing exports is against the rules.

Our NATO allies’ spending less than 2% of their GDPs on their militaries is against the rules.

The list is practically endless.

In his op-ed at the Wall Street Journal David M. Smick gets it:

Start in 1989. That remarkable year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the socialist model, and the rise of globalization. By the early 1990s, China, India, Eastern Europe and a host of commodity-producing countries had joined the global capitalist club.

That was the beginning of the so-called Washington Consensus—a new global order based on deregulating market access, liberalizing capital and trade flows, encouraging domestic competition, fortifying the rule of law, and reducing taxes, debt and market subsidies. By 1995, the leaders of this new world order established the World Trade Organization, which China joined six years later.

[…]

This global order still had created unprecedented wealth, helping to raise a billion people out of poverty. But it also had led to wealth inequality, flat real wages, and an international financial system hugely out of balance. Central banks injected tens of trillions of dollars of liquidity, trying to protect asset prices based on an order that no longer existed.

It eventually became clear that the original vision of a new global economic order was only a romanticized dream. Many nations took part in the global system—but not to liberalize their economies or make them more transparent and accessible. They came to game the system.

It’s a realistic world and naïfs like David Brooks are just living in it. And prospering mightily by it.

If you genuinely want to pursue foreign policy idealism, you must be willing to play by the rules that have been set up whether you like them or not, whether you benefit by them or not. Otherwise you’re just gaming the system and that isn’t foreign policy idealism. It’s realism.

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