Thursday, July 28, 2016

The sphinx without a secret

Oscar Wilde has a short story called "The Sphinx Without a Secret," about a woman who appears to have a great mystery in her life - going to a private apartment at certain times in the week, etc.  After she dies, someone who's fascinated with her investigates, and finds out that the great secret is there was no secret - it was just a sham to create the appearance of mystery and excitement.

Donald Trump's Russian connection isn't quite the same as this - he isn't trying to create a mystery regarding whether he is a foreign agent.  But the underlying truth here is, I think, as unmysterious as hers.  I believe one can predict it with confidence, although obviously verifying (or modifying) it would be desirable.

Here's the basic model for understanding it.  U.S. politicians often have big donors who give them lots of money, and with whom they have close relationships and shared understandings, while generally avoiding express quid pro quos.  (Plus, each side in such a relationship does in fact have multiple allies, along with multiple parameters guiding its behavior.)

Not to pick on Republicans here relative to Democrats, but a classic example would be Scott Walker's relationship with the Koch brothers.  They've given him lots of money, he tends to pursue their objectives, but he could honestly say that he'd do so anyway.  He tends not to talk to them much directly (a liberal Boston radio jock embarrassed him by calling him on the phone and pretending to be a Koch; Walker fell for it and spoke with him very accommodatingly).  Part of the donor's game is simply to exert influence over the donee's worldview, plus of course they have selected each other based on prior compatibility.

I would start with this as my model for Trump and the Russians, only there are some differences.

1) The Koch brothers are American citizens with strong views about U.S. policy.  Russia is a foreign power whose leader regards the U.S., in large degree though not always, as an enemy.  Putin recognizes that we have some common interests and foes, but his chief foreign policy goal is to restore Russian-U.S. parity or better, including Russian dominance in its territorial sphere at the expense of NATO allies.  Hurting the U.S. is generally good from his standpoint, all else equal, and he would certainly like to expel us from as much of Europe as he can.

2) Scott Walker, I presume, has lots of funding sources.  By contrast, I gather that there is substantial evidence that Trump has been heavily reliant on Russian financing for more than a decade.  Other than Credit Suisse, I gather that few if any banks active in the U.S. credit market will fund him anymore, because he has proven to be too bad-faith a business partner.

3) Scott Walker knows and understands the norms of U.S. politics, e.g., regarding how you moderate the degree of quid pro quo.  (And again, there are Democrats and their financial backers whom I could sub in here.)  Trump, needless to say, doesn't understand this, and has zero inclination to try to learn it.

4) Scott Walker is within the psychologically normal range of human nature.  Trump is an extreme narcissist.  So the fact that these guys are his "friends," and have been helping him out and working with him for so many years, means that they and everything they want (unless directly at his expense) is by definition good.

I suspect that mostly covers it.  I think that, if you asked Putin, under truth serum, is Trump your stooge, he would say Yes, and we've worked hard for many years to make him one.  If you asked Trump under truth serum, he would say: No (obviously, this would be unacceptably hurtful to his self-esteem), but he would add that the Russians are really good people, they've helped me out, and I sympathize with them and understand their needs.

Is there an implicit threat that they'd pull the funding if he didn't give them what they want?  I don't doubt that they would, but I presume he is not focused on that, and may even be naive about it.  (Why would his friends, who are such nice guys, ever do that to him?)  There's often an iron fist under the velvet glove of an ongoing relationship - but that doesn't mean that express blackmail threats are being regularly (or ever) issued.

Does this sound too stupid and naive on Trump's part?  I don't think so.  Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who has played an important role in developing this story, has been very cautious here, as he should be, but what he hasn't done at all here is invoke what he calls "Trump's Razor."  This is the proposition that, in trying to figure things out about Trump, one should always "ascertain the stupidest possible scenario that can be reconciled with the available facts."

Trump's Razor hasn't failed Marshall yet in this election cycle, and I don't think it would it fail him here if he thus invoked it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Another brick in place

I seem to have completed a draft of chapter 7 of my literature book, concerning Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now.  Here is the layout so far:

PART 1: WHY THE SUPER-RICH, AND WHY LITERATURE?

1. Introduction

2. The Mapmaker’s Dilemma in Evaluating High-End Inequality

PART 2: ENGLAND AND FRANCE DURING THE AGE OF REVOLUTION

Introduction to Part 2

3. Why Aren’t Things Better Than This? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

4. A Rising Tide Rocks All Boats: The Threat of Rising Prosperity in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir

5. The Arriviste as Morally Compromised Cat’s Paw: Balzac’s Le Père Goriot and La Maison Nucingen

Summing Up Part 2

PART 3: ENGLAND FROM THE MID-NINETEENTH CENTURY THROUGH THE START OF WORLD WAR I

Introduction to Part 3

6.  Art, Heart, and “Schmart” in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

7.  Don’t Blame Them? Plutocrats, Capitalism, and Foreigners in Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now

Chapter 8, which will conclude Part 3, is almost certainly going to discuss E.M. Forster's Howards End.  I have thought about discussing Saki's The Unbearable Bassington, which I love, but choosing Forster is probably preferable on multiple grounds.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Hungry Tiger

I once (as an adult) read The Wizard of Oz, which (as books can be) is fuller than the movie, but  you can also see that the 1938 filmmakers did a great job of compressing and tightening the plot to increase its dramatic impact.  Then I read Book 2 (I haven't read the other twenty or so), which also was fun and had a memorable character called  the Hungry Tiger.  Per Wikipedia:

The Hungry Tiger is a massive beast who is friends with the Cowardly Lion. He is always hungry no matter how much he eats, and longs to eat a "fat baby," though he never would because his conscience will not allow him to do so. He asks Nanda for permission to eat her and when she declines, he asks for a large quantity of beefsteakspotatoes, and ice cream. He wishes that a dentistcould remove his appetite. At the banquet in the Emerald City at the end of Ozma of Oz, he acknowledges that he is finally full.

My memory of the Hungry Tiger, from Book 2, is that he is always saying to people: I'm so hungry I almost feel like eating you, but what would be the point, I'd just be hungry again in an hour anyway.  This in turn now brings to mind Buddy - the fellow shown here below - although he is fortunately far too small to think of us as food, other than as its suppliers via the crunchies we give him.  

The thing about Buddy is how opposite in temperament he is to the Hungry Tiger.  Even if he had human-like anticipation and foresight, he would NEVER fuss along the lines of "What's the point? I'll just be hungry again soon."   He is far too buoyant and (if one can say this of a cat) essentially optimistic to despond like that - even as he gets older and creakier, and thus generally starts to feel much worse physically.

So he'll whine for food if he thinks it might work, even if you just fed him five minutes ago.  But, unless he's exceptionally hungry, if it doesn't work he just figures: That's fine, plenty of other nice things to do (such as going to one of his favored napping spots).

Whenever I get agitated about something, say about the election, I realize what a valuable lesson about temperament and mood one could try to learn (if such things were learnable) from Buddy.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Greg Mankiw on universal basic income

Here he makes the same point that I have (here, for example).  But no, he didn't get it from me - the point is well-known to people who think about it carefully.

Easy writing versus hard writing

The tax and social justice paper that I mentioned in an earlier post took me just over three days.  The slightly shorter Jane Austen chapter for my literature book has taken (so far) hundreds of hours, spread out over multiple drafts and a couple of years.

Whistling (if not quite singing) in the rain

In last night's RNC speech, Trump was almost commendably up-front about the fact that he is proposing to replace the U.S. legal and political order with a Putinist dictatorship.  By squinting a bit, however, I can discern three silver linings:

1) Prognosticators generally see a 60% to 80% chance that he will lose the election.

2) If he wins, we don't know for sure that the institutional barriers will fail.  This depends on other politicians in both parties, on Executive Branch employees and the military if (when?) they get illegal and improper orders, and on civil society institutions including the press.

3) We also don't know for sure that he means it.  If not, it wouldn't be the first time that purchasers of Trump products failed to get what they were promised.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Tax and social justice paper

I noted in an earlier blog post that I am writing a short piece for the tax and social justice conference that is upcoming at NYU in late September.  The piece now has a title - "Interrogating the Relationship Between 'Legally Defensible' Tax Planning and Social Justice" - and I've actually written it, or at least a 10,000 word first draft.  It went really fast, verging on writing itself.  And it does indeed take the unusual form, for the last 80 percent, of a dialogue between two fictional individuals with somewhat differing viewpoints.  At the moment, although one always must distrust the infatuation associated with something you have just written and that came together easily, I rather like it.

I'm not planning to post it before September, but here is the abstract:

"Large-scale tax avoidance by wealthy individuals and large companies that is legally defensible under relevant national tax laws can nonetheless have major adverse effects on social justice and/or public morale.  However, its legal defensibility complicates analyzing its ethical implications, as compared to the more straightforward case of committing tax fraud.  Legal defensibility also complicates the analysis of the extent to which advocates of human rights principles and policies should focus on such desiderata as “good corporate tax behavior” and the ethics of tax professionals.

"Much of this complexity pertains to (1) issues of ex ante legal uncertainty regarding whether a defensible position would actually be upheld if closely scrutinized, (2) the multifaceted character both of tax professionals’ ethical obligations and of their incentives, and (3) the ambiguity of people’s personal ethical obligations to act altruistically, rather than just self-interestedly.  It also is hard to judge the tactical questions associated with focusing on these issues, rather than on the tax rules’ content.  Ethical challenges may help to undermine social acceptance of current practices, but also may distract from legal reform efforts."

Interpreting last night's Cruz-Trump set-to

I haven't been watching the Republican Convention - shambolic versions of the Nuremberg Rallies aren't my thing - but Martin Longman's distinctive take on what happened seems to capture an important aspect, missing in most of the other accounts that I've seen.

It appears that the Trump camp (1) had full notice of what Cruz was planning to do, (2) organized the response of booing him off the stage and having Trump crowd his exit, and (3) informed him that this was their plan.

They may have hoped that he would find this intolerable and back down, but they couldn't have been counting on this, at least not 100%.  What I think they were counting on is that, if he stuck to his plan and they stuck to theirs, the media takeaway would be "Cruz is punished and shamed for breaking his pledge" - making it a pro-unity moment, no less than when Trotsky was escorted over the Soviet border.

Since it didn't play out that way in the media, did they learn anything?  I would say, all they learned is something that they already knew: that this is what can happen when, unlike Putin, you are still subject to the bias of an "unfair" media.

UPDATE: Right on cue, Trump said exactly what I thought he would say about the "dishonest" media's reporting of the Cruz speech.

Health club blues (and glitter rock)

Ever since recurrent nagging injuries forced me off the tennis court, probably for good, I've relied on elliptical machines (plus diet) as the lead weapon in my hand-to-hand combat against the aging process (aka, very slow and orderly retreat).  The problem is that I keep having to find music to listen to while I'm plodding through my 35 minutes.  I have a 50+ year back catalog to draw on, but it has to be something I like hearing right now, that's sufficiently up-tempo, and it can't be too new to me (for a new album - and I do still think in "album" terms - I still need 2 or 3 conventional listens before it can work for me at the health club).

Today's successful re-discovery was Roxy Music's classic 1975 concept album - the Sergeant Pepper of painful romantic self-delusion - Siren.  Highly recommended if you like 1960s or 1970s rock, or for that matter Radiohead.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Presented without comment (due to Godwin's Law)

From an email I just got from Eric Trump: "Across the world right now, people laugh at us!  They think we are too soft."

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New territory?

I admire David Cay Johnston's investigative work.  He has been a NY Times reporter on the tax beat, gave the Tillinghast International Tax Lecture at NYU once, and recently has been publishing in the Daily Beast, among other places.  A number of his recent columns, such as this one most recently. concern tax and other matters relating to Donald Trump, whose history Johnston has been investigating for some years (predating the 2016 campaign).  He has a book on Trump coming out shortly.  Among the topics I presume it will cover is Trump's mob ties, which he has discussed, for example, here.

Given the unique times that we are living through these days, I seriously wonder: What happens to unfriendly investigative reporters if Trump wins the election?  That's not the sort of question I've ever thought it necessary to ask before, in the U.S. context - even Nixon's enemies list seems to have been largely a matter of venting.*  But we are in new territory, with a candidate who likes to talk about loosening the libel laws, and who threatened Amazon and Jeff Bezos because he didn't like some articles in the Washington Post, and who openly admires Vladimir Putin.
_________________________________________________________________________________
*Of course, we'll never really know what Nixon's second term might have looked like, had he kept on riding high after the POWs came home, instead of getting consumed by Watergate. But aides such as Haldeman appear to have been fairly vigilant about limiting the crazy stuff that he actually did.