What Did You Do During the Political War, Daddy?

Years from now, when some young person, maybe your own kid or grandkid, asks you, What was it like living through the Trump presidency, and what did you do about it? what will you say?

That’s going to be a tough question for many of our Republican friends. I imagine it’ll elicit a lot of hemming and hawing—about Hillary’s emails, the Supreme Court, and so forth. If you’re a Democrat, and your answer is, I was traumatized, I stopped following the news, I felt America was hopelessly screwed, I tended my own garden—well, that’s not a good answer either.

But since you’re reading this, and are therefore probably a regular reader of the Washington Monthly and washingtonmonthy.com, it’s safe to assume that you have a better answer. At the very least, during the first nightmarish year of the Trump administration, you performed the basic duty of citizenship and kept up with current affairs, no matter how disturbing.

And my guess is you did way more than that. Chances are you forwarded scores of stories you read here and in other outlets to your family and friends to keep them informed or challenge their thinking. Perhaps you contributed your own thoughts in our comments section, or emailed us story tips (if so, thanks, keep it up!). If you live in places like Virginia or New Jersey, you almost certainly voted in the off-year elections this month—and if you don’t live in those places, maybe you donated to the campaigns of candidates there, many of whom had never run for office before. If so, you have reason to be proud.

The truth is, despite the dire situation in our country—indeed, because of that dire situation—we are living through a renaissance of democratic activism. Average Americans all over the country are informing themselves and mobilizing in ways we’ve not seen in decades. Where it’s all headed no one can say for sure. What we do know is that this is a time of testing. All of us will have to answer for what we did, or didn’t do, to fight the insanity and help set a better course for the nation.

Here at the Washington Monthly, we’re trying to do our part. Every day our online writers—Nancy Letourneau, Martin Longman, and their colleagues—are providing you with analysis and commentary on breaking news that is informative, brilliant, and unique. And in our print magazine, our writers and editors are doing what they do better than any group of journalists operating today: looking under the surface and over the horizon for the problems and the solutions that the rest of the press and the political class should be talking about but aren’t—about how to bring back economic growth in the middle 90 percent of the country, how to think correctly about regulation, how to reform our electoral system, and how to really drain the swamp in DC.

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Quick Takes: McMaster Called Trump an Idiot

* Buzzfeed reports:

Over a July dinner with Oracle CEO Safra Catz — who has been mentioned as a candidate for several potential administration jobs — McMaster bluntly trashed his boss, said the sources, four of whom told BuzzFeed News they heard about the exchange directly from Catz. The top national security official dismissed the president variously as an “idiot” and a “dope” with the intelligence of a “kindergartner,” the sources said.

A sixth source who was not familiar with the details of the dinner told BuzzFeed News that McMaster had made similarly derogatory comments about Trump’s intelligence to him in private, including that the president lacked the necessary brainpower to understand the matters before the National Security Council.

It was only a few weeks ago that the Secretary of State called POTUS a “f*cking moron.” Now we learn that the National Security Advisor called him an “idiot” and a “dope.” We must never become numb to just how dangerously unprecedented this all is.

* This is big news:

The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit to block AT&T’s takeover of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Monday, is an unusual challenge to the $85 billion deal, which was announced by the two companies more than a year ago. AT&T says it will fight the case in court.

In the suit, the DOJ argues that the deal violates antitrust law because AT&T would likely “use its control of Time Warner’s popular programming as a weapon to harm competition.”

The government alleges that the deal “would result in fewer innovative offerings and higher bills for American families.”

Josh Marshall provides the caution.

I generally oppose all mega-mergers like this for a host of reasons. But I have very little doubt that what is driving this is President Trump and his feud with CNN. There’s abundant evidence to that effect, which makes this highly dangerous.

* Kellyanne Conway last week:

Whatever the facts end up being, the premises, of course, the principle, the incontrovertible principle, is that there is no Senate seat worth more than a child. And we all want to get that put forward. I have three daughters and a son, frankly, and we’re all watching this.

Kellyanne Conway today:

Kilmede: So, vote Roy Moore?

Conway: I’m telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.

* Jim Wallis writes that, “A year into Trump’s presidency, Christians are facing a spiritual reckoning.” This struck me as an accurate description:

Christians, rightly enough, have never expected perfect leaders — just those who can keep up their end of the moral struggle. But for Trump, there is no moral struggle. He is not immoral — knowing what is right and wrong, and choosing the wrong — he rather seems amoral: lacking any kind of moral compass for his personal or professional life. That’s why the Christian compromise with Trump and his ilk has put faithful Americans at such serious risk.

* I’m not going to tell you why this song is on my mind today. I’ll simply say that it is one of my favorite Beatles tunes and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as I did.

* Just a quick reminder that we’ve started our holiday fundraising drive and your donation will be matched dollar-for-dollar by our foundation supporters. So please click on this banner and make a contribution. Thanks!

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Honoring What You Love

I have two stepsons who are in their twenties. When they were teenagers, I noticed that one of their least favorite holiday presents was an iTunes gift card. They could barely feign gratitude and they left the things unused. When I inquired about why they didn’t want free music, they explained that they could get all the free music they wanted online, and they didn’t need to download it song-by-song, but could get whole albums just as easily.

My first thought was that this was some kind of illicit revival of Napster which I thought had been resolved all the way back in 2000 with the resolution of Metallica v. Napster. Peer-to-peer sharing of this type was illegal, so how could my kids be doing this? Soon enough I realized, however, that I was witnessing a generational change and that almost no one their age was buying music anymore.

My next thought was that the legal system had been overwhelmed by digital pirating and that musicians would soon be starving to death. The problem, I discovered, was so pervasive that there was really no point in me as a parent trying to fight against it. All that was left was to figure out how it might soon devastate writers.

Of course, the news industry had been staggering from the digital revolution for some time by that point, trying to find a way to avoid giving away its product for free. They explored paywalls and premium content, all the while trimming payroll and closing foreign desks. Nothing appeared to work, and unpunished pirating seemed like it would close off or undermine some of the few solutions that we’re being explored with some success.

The music industry had to adapt, and the patch so far has been for musicians to pretty much give up on selling CDs and instead focus on getting people to pay to see live performances. They tour more and they charge much more for their concerts.

This is interesting because if basically follows the model of the Grateful Dead. They were an improvisational band that did not perform well in the studio, so they spent less time making albums and more time touring the country, often doing ninety or more shows a year.  They were unique in that they made no effort to keep people from taping and trading recordings of their concerts, and saw it as a way to increase their exposure and popularity.  They didn’t charge more for their concerts, instead making up for their lost record sales revenue by having a higher volume of shows.

This past week, I looked into seeing a Dead & Company show in Philadelphia. This is an ensemble that includes three members from the original band, including their rhythm guitar player, Bob Weir. When I priced out the tickets, I found that two seats with an unobstructed view of the stage would cost me $453 after fees. This was a long way from the approximately ten bucks I paid to see my first Dead show in 1984. I decided I couldn’t afford that price, which is a shame because the set list from the show looks pretty good.

Obviously, the new version of the band has succumbed to the same economic pressures that have forced today’s musicians to pursue the Grateful Dead’s old financial strategy. They’re lucky they’re still good enough to sell out basketball arenas at those astronomical ticket prices. Most musicians aren’t so lucky.

Writers and news organizations can’t exactly replicate this solution, either, no matter how good or essential they are. It’s impossible to avoid giving away your product for free. But before I get to that, I want you take a look at a part of an interview Bob Weir gave back when the Metallica v. Napster case was still a live issue:

Despite your obvious belief in the potential of online music distribution, you have been an outspoken foe of Napster.

Of course. It’s like Marxism except they forget the “from each” part. It’s not a complete system because it consists of people taking and not giving, and it is therefore doomed to failure. It can really bust stuff up. It can really fuck up American popular musical culture. I argue this point with advocates all the time. I say, “How are musicians going to make a living and let their craft be their livelihood?” They always get squinty eyed and go, “But don’t you see, don’t you see?” They have nothing else to say—and I don’t see, though I wish I did. People pick on Metallica by talking about how rich they are, but it’s not about them or me. I’m a guy who can afford to give it away, but I’m talking about the guys in my band, who need to make a living. I’m talking about me when I was 18 years old living on the street. We couldn’t afford to go on the road. The Grateful Dead had to make a record and get an advance in order to get out there and make our way.

On a more personal level, I have to say that we just made a damn good record and Napster is killing us because we’re square in the middle of that demographic. If we can’t at least make back the money we put into that, we’re going to have to think twice about making a record again. And if I’m in that position, believe me, others are, too.

But the entire history of the Dead, as well as bands from Phish to the Allman Brothers who copied your “allow taping” model of business indicates that the more that is available for free, the more people will be into the band and support you. You’ll sell more tickets. More people will buy the actual releases…

But there’s a huge difference between a third- or fourth-generation cassette tape and a digitally reproduced downloadable version of what is essentially the master recording. Then you don’t have to buy the record unless you want the cover and you can probably get that online, too. It can be really injurious to American musical culture. And it’s not like these guys are Robin Hood. Give me a fucking break. They’re making money hand over fist. Napster is worth millions. Of course, I can’t defend the music industry either. You hear stories of mid-level executives having catered lunches or chefs coming in and preparing them gourmet meals, and someone’s paying for this behavior, too. And the whole business of not being able to get something on the radio if it’s not four minutes long is not good. It’s bad. Real bad. And that’s our music industry as it stands. It’s got to come to somewhere in the middle. I think the net is going to have a huge and hopefully positive effect on music, but the absurd left and the absurd right have to disappear for a meeting in the middle if music is going to survive. Maybe it will even open some people’s minds so they throw off the labels the industry has tried to apply to them—“you’re a metalhead, you like jam bands and you only listen to jazz.” The net could take us back to the late Sixties when you could hear the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Igor Stravinsky back to back on the same radio station. In any case, we need the utopian idealists and there always will be people who are only in it for the money. That’s the lexicon of humanity and that’s music. It will sort itself out, but as my friend Bobby Cochran said, “People are going to have to honor what they love.” If you love music enough, support it.

Today, I craft my own “radio stations” on Pandora pretty much the way that Bob Weir envisioned almost twenty years ago. As a consumer, I have all the access to free music I could ever want, even though I, as an adult with a job, can’t afford to see the same artists perform live in concert that I toured with as a teenager.

The real problem is for me a creator or producer. And it’s a problem for my employer and my industry. How do we get paid or compensated for producing news and analysis?

The answer comes back to the consumer. “People are going to have to honor what they love.” If you love news and analysis enough, you will have to support it. That’s why I am asking you to make a donation to the Washington Monthly and to take advantage of the fact that for a limited time, every dollar you donate will be matched by our generous sponsors: the Knight Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the MacArthur Foundation.

Everyone of us at Washington Monthly will thank you for your support!

And with that, I’ll reward you with an example of why we old Deadheads worked summer jobs to pay for those ten dollar concert tickets instead of wasting the money at the local record store.

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How Republicans Are Undermining Charitable Giving

Conservatives have often made the case that they are not immune to the concerns of the poor and disposed in this country. They just don’t think that it is the government’s job to do anything about their plight. The case is often made that it is up to the private nonprofit sector (especially churches) to care for the needy. Does anyone remember George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” initiative? This is from his 1989 inaugural address:

I have spoken of a thousand points of light, of all the community organizations that are spread like stars throughout the Nation, doing good. We will work hand in hand, encouraging, sometimes leading, sometimes being led, rewarding.

Apparently that kind of thinking is now passé among Republicans. David Callahan describes how their tax bill will affect charitable giving and the nonprofit sector.

According to an analysis by the Joint Committee on Taxation provisions of the House bill – specifically, a doubling of the standard deduction – 31 million taxpayers would no longer be incentivized to make charitable deductions, gutting a tax break that has helped spur giving for 100 years.

Scrapping the estate tax – another feature of the House bill (although not the Senate version) – would lower donations by eliminating a major incentive for the wealthiest Americans to devote large fortunes to philanthropy…

The bill would also impose a 1.4% tax on income generated by university endowments, and penalize nonprofit executive salaries over $1m a year – although it says nothing about exponentially higher levels of corporate compensation.

According to one estimate, these changes could lower overall charitable giving by as much as $13 billion per year in this country. Beyond that, various versions of the House bill have repealed all or part of what has been called the “Johnson amendment” that prohibits tax exempt organizations from endorsing specific candidates. There has been some back-and-forth about whether such a repeal would apply only to churches and religious organizations, or if it should be rolled back for all non-profits. But the effect would be that wherever the repeal was applied, organizations would turn into nothing more than pass throughs for wealthy donors—similar to super PACs.

I’m sure there are still some conservatives who believe that religious institutions and nonprofits should flourish as an alternative to government programs. But as Callahan points out, the claims about Donald Trump’s charitable giving have been pretty thoroughly debunked, while his administration has proposed drastic cuts to federal agencies that provide billions of dollars in grants to universities, hospitals, museums and community development groups. i.e., Meals on Wheels.

Beyond Trump, there is a growing antipathy among some conservatives for philanthropic causes.

In other countries that have veered into authoritarianism, like Russia, civil society groups have faced outright suppression. Nothing like that is happening in the US yet, but Trumpist culture warriors have cast nonprofits and philanthropists as key villains in a narrative that pits coastal elites against the common (white) man.

Hillary Clinton may have lost the election, but the Clinton Foundation – an organization that mainly works on global health issues – remains at the center of feverish conspiracy theories. And hardly a day goes by without Breitbart running a paranoid story involving Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, or George Soros. Craven university leaders beholden to PC activists are another favorite target of scorn in the conservative media.

We’ve seen an assault on government institutions and the media from this administration and it’s supporters. But this attempt to smear philanthropy and nonprofits, combined with the way the tax cut bill undermines their sustainability, is an attack on a part of our civil society that has long been immune from the partisan divide. Apparently the current GOP is prepared to change all that and distance themselves from support for charitable giving. That strikes me as not simply a bad move for the country, but a rather ignorant one from Republicans. Of course, I’ve been having that reaction a lot lately.

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Mark Naison: The Genius of Luis Torres

Mark Naison salutes a principal in the Bronx, Luis Torres, who has overshadowed the Success Academy co-located in his Building because his school is more innovative, more dynamic than the test-taking machine at SA.

Mark calls him “a genius.”

“One of the most brilliant and important achievements of PS 55’s visionary Principal, Luis E Torres, is that through innovative programming and a relentless public relations campaign, he has totally overshadowed the Success Academy Charter School co-located in his building! Normally, Success Academy tries to humiliate and stigmatize the public schools it is co-located by pointing out how much better it’s performance is! Not at PS 55! Here, the action, innovation and excitement is all with the public school, whether it is the scientific and pedagogical innovations of the Green Bronx Machine, the school based agriculture program housed at the School; the full service Medical clinic Principal Torres has created; or the school’s championship step team and basketball team! People from all over the city and the nation come to see what Principal Torres has done; while Success Academy stays in the background.”

Was it competition that spurred Torres’ creativity? Or was he an exemplary principal who wanted the best for his students regardless of the competition?

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Robert Byrd Would Be 100 Today, but in Some Ways He Lives On

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia would have been one hundred years old today, so it seems like a good time to look back on his career and think about how he is still relevant in our present era. Ira Shapiro has done that in an excellent piece that traces Byrd from his 1917 birth in South Carolina to his death in 2010. As part of that article, Shapiro has a lengthy exploration of the Byrd Rule which I won’t try to replicate here. What’s more important is to understand why the rule became necessary, and Shapiro explains that in an admirably concise manner:

Byrd’s belief in process and procedure was also why he was a key player in producing and enacting the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974. He recognized that if Congress could not produce an overall budget, it would inevitably cede power to the executive branch. He was willing to tolerate a Budget Act that established procedures that were an exception to the normal Senate rules. But when Byrd saw the reconciliation procedure being abused by the Reagan administration, he moved quickly to limit the use of reconciliation by ensuring that it could only be used for budget purposes and not for “extraneous” matters.

That little paragraph makes it easy to see both why the Trump administration and the Republican congressional leadership have pursued the budget reconciliation process to repeal Obamacare and enact tax reform and why they have found the effort so vexatious. As the Senate became more polarized by party in the 1970’s, it became necessary to relax Senate rules to assure that some agreement on a budget could be achieved, because without any agreement on spending priorities, the administration would be forced or enabled to make those decisions unilaterally. As a result, the filibuster was eliminated for budget bills. Of course, this was immediately exploited by senators who saw their goals thwarted by the need to win a supermajority of votes and things were attached to the budget reconciliation bills that could not have passed during regular order.

Byrd’s solution was to empower the parliamentarian to strike things from reconciliation bills that had no obvious budgetary impact. He also found a way to cut down on shenanigans, like building out legislation that looks affordable in the short term but comes with giant balloon payments down the line. He did this by making sure that budget bills had to balance after ten years. Of course, accomplishing these things through rule-writing may sound easy but it actually required a large amount of intelligence and imagination. Byrd had both in abundance, but even he couldn’t anticipate every way in which the rules could be bent to violate the spirit of what he was trying to achieve.

I have written almost incessantly this year about the novel dual-budget reconciliation process the Republicans devised to push Trump’s legislative agenda on health care and taxes. The shortest formulation of this is that McConnell and Ryan took advantage of the fact that they created a budget reconciliation bill last year but never used it. In the end, a deal on spending was struck with the outgoing Obama administration which left an empty shell of a reconciliation bill that was then repurposed for eliminating Obamacare.

That this gambit was used at all is a legacy of Byrd’s work on the Budget Control and Impoundment Act of 1974 and his subsequent rule for limiting how that process could be hijacked. In this sense, Byrd both enabled the abuse and hamstrung those that attempted to carry it out.

Understanding this is mindbendingly complex, but bear with me.

The first key is that there is a limitation on the budget reconciliation process that says that there can be a maximum of three such regular order-exempt bills per year. One bill can deal with extending the debt ceiling and isn’t relevant here. One bill can deal with revenues and one bill can deal with expenses. Both health care and tax policy inevitably involve both revenues and spending, so what winds up happening is that the Senate can really only do one of these types of bills in any given fiscal year. That would ordinarily mean that if the Senate wanted to bypass the filibuster to repeal Obamacare and do tax cuts, they’d have to combine all of it into a single budget reconciliation bill.

You can thank Senator Byrd for creating that constraint, but Paul and McConnell sought to get around it by using last year’s unused bill to repeal Obamacare and then following that up by creating a second budget bill for taxes. You can’t actually have two separate budgets for a single fiscal year, and Byrd hadn’t anticipated that anyone would try something so brazenly dishonest.

It was imaginative on the Republican leaders’ part, but it presented some immediate hurdles. For starters, the Republicans could only use last year’s shell of a bill so long as they didn’t pass a new superseding budget. That meant that they needed to do Obamacare repeal very fast because otherwise this year’s budget work would be delayed. It also created an absolute deadline because, as the parliamentarian eventually ruled, once the fiscal year ended on September 30th, 2017, the opportunity to use last year’s budget would end, too.

Once they started their hasty work on Obamacare repeal, the Republicans quickly discovered another land mine Sen. Byrd had left for them. The Byrd Rule defines what is and is not germane to reconciliation bills and gives the parliamentarian the ultimate power to enforce those standards. This created a limitation on what kind of horse trading could be done to win over reluctant supporters of their health care reform efforts. Two clear examples of this were Senator Ted Cruz’s desire to offer cheap substandard catastrophic plans and Senator Rand Paul’s insistence that state regulators get cut out so that plans can be sold across state lines. Neither proposal met the germaneness standard. Less obviously, the rules did not allow old-fashioned pork barrel incentives like bridges or money for pet research projects to be used as incentives. These restrictions ultimately doomed the Republicans’ efforts to round up the fifty votes they needed for Obamacare repeal.

Another complication arose from the need to score the bills. The Congressional Budget Office has to score budget reconciliation bills because of requirements that Senator Byrd put in place. For example, someone must decide if provisions of the bills will lower revenue or increase spending, both within and beyond a ten-year window. In cases where there’s some ambiguity and the CBO hasn’t made a determination, the parliamentarian is authorized to make a judgment. Taken together, these two rules create a de facto requirement that the CBO be consulted. Of course, both the desperate skinny repeal effort and the last-second Graham-Cassidy hail mary were accompanied by devastating CBO scores that cratered any chance they had. When September 30th came and went, the Obamacare repeal effort was well and truly dead.

As I’ve already mentioned, the new budget process could not really begin until the health care process was completed. As a result, the tax reform was delayed. The House only recently completed their work on a budget and then rushed through a tax bill that has support from about twenty percent of the public. The Senate will take up their tax bill after the Thanksgiving break.

They will again be constrained in what kind of horse-trading they can do to win over wavering members. The Byrd Rule limitations on adding to the long term deficit are forcing the Senate to sunset tax cuts for ordinary citizens after ten years in order to have the money they need to enact permanent corporate tax cuts, and this is making their legislation politically untenable. As they try to sell their tax plan with pie-in-the-sky projections of economic growth based on “dynamic scoring,” they are having to face the countermessaging of a comparatively objective Congressional Budget Office that projects a massive increase in debt.

There are two ways to look at all of this. On the one hand, Senator Byrd would be deeply offended by what the Republicans are and have been attempting to do, as he spent much of his career trying to prevent the Senate from operating this way. But he inadvertently created the process that they’ve been trying to exploit. On the other hand, as imperfect as his design has proved to be, the obstacles he put in the Republicans’ path have so far worked to prevent them from achieving their aims.

So, on what would have been his one hundredth birthday, we have plenty of reason to think about his legacy and to thank him for his service.

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