Quick hits (part I)

1) Dahlia Lithwick on Manafort’s sentence:

At the sentencing, Ellis remarked that Manafort had led an “otherwise blameless life,” was “generous,” and loved his family. This despite the fact that his life was quite literally devoted to lobbying for foreign interests that were in some cases vile criminals and to creaming money from one scheme after the next to enrich himself at the expense of his business associates. Frank Foer has done the definitive takedown of Ellis’ comments. But the most important revelation from the hearing is that Ellis is hardly alone in normalizing the criminal conduct of powerful white men. He gave Manafort a pass for doing precisely what Donald Trump, his adult children, and several of his Cabinet members do every day. He put his own legal imprimatur on Trump’s aphorism: “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” [emphasis mine] Manafort did not apologize at his sentencing, and Ellis chided him for that. “I was surprised I did not hear you express regret,” he said. Yet he promptly handed down a sentence so lenient it basically had a nail file baked right into it…

Beyond his marked antipathy for prosecutors, the underlying sin of Ellis’ findings seems to be his willingness to sign off on the idea that literally decades of criminal behavior—tax fraud, deception, lies to banks, and more lies to cover it—are more or less honorable business conduct just two shades griftier than the glittering path of the American dream. Manafort gets credit, in other words, for having his heart in the right place, as he lied and cut corners and cheated his own partners and clients. Who among us hasn’t suffered similar missteps on the road to making our millions?..

Put another way, Ellis’ impulse to forgive Manafort for the way he constructed his life of near-fame and power-brokering is precisely the same impulse that allows some Americans to forgive Donald Trump for cheating on his taxes. (He famously claimed not paying taxes makes him “smart.”) It’s the same impulse that allows so many Americans to forgive Trump’s adult children and business for profiting off the presidency, whether by way of Chinese trademarks for Ivanka or soaring occupancy rates at Trump hotels by those seeking to curry favor. It’s the impulse that allows Trump fans to be largely unbothered by Jared Kushner’s undying friendship with the Saudi crown prince responsible for the hideous murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post reporter. It’s also the impulse that leads some congressional Democrats to claim that going after Trump’s adult children would be deemed excessively punitive. In the world of high-flying, millionaire-adjacent activities, pretty much anything is sketchy and pretty much everything is permissible, until you get caught. All this lying, and covering up, and tax evading, and money laundering, is just the cost of doing business.

2)Yeah, and you totally need to read the Franklin Foer takedown that Lithwick links to.

3a) John Pfaff with a bunch of great tweets arguing, though, that Manafort’s short sentence should be the norm, not the exception.

3b) Drum on the matter:

We are prison crazy in America, racking up an average sentence length of 63 months. This is five times the length of most of our peer countries. But when it comes to white-collar crime, people like Manafort get off relatively easy.

If the average sentence in the US were, say, a more normal 12 months, then Manafort’s 47 months would seem appropriately harsh. And since there’s little evidence that long prison sentences do much to reduce crime, it would be great if both states and the federal government moved in that direction. It’s long past time to dial down the criminal justice system from its excesses of the 80s and 90s.

4) OMG, YA Twitter is just insane.  And you gotta love that one of the worst enforcers of political correctness amok was totally hoisted by his own petard.  But, damn, what a toxic mindset.

5) So, apparently Brian Beutler’s wife is pretty awesome, too.  A great column from physician Lisa Beutler on how Democrats should run on Medicare for All (you should totally read the whole thing– great anecdotes in here, too):

Even if Congress never touches the health care issue again, almost everyone who is satisfied with their current health-insurance plans will lose them at some point. They will change employers, get promotions, lose jobs, or they will do nothing at all and their carriers will simply stop offering the plans they like. Inevitably, thousands if not millions of those people will find themselves in bureaucratic nightmares like the one I’m dealing with when their new insurers try to exploit the churn in the market for profit.

On top of everything else Kamala Harris described in her pitch for single payer, Democrats should home in on this. Will you have to switch plans? Yes. But you will have to switch plans at some point anyhow, and when you do, you will be at the mercy of a system that will try to milk your changing circumstances, for profit, at your expense. Let’s deny them that power. Let’s switch, together, all at once, and then never again.

It will of course be an administrative challenge to transition the population to Medicare by a certain date. But the worst thing Democrats could do is try to outsource that challenge to millions of us who have better things to do in life than argue with insurance companies and collections agencies, and who don’t have $17,000 lying around to make the problem go away. We should debate the best way to accomplish the transition and take great care that good, competent people are put in charge of it. But then we would be done. No one would have to turn down an exciting job opportunity because they’d lose their current insurance ever again. No one would have to switch their doctors because their employers found a cheaper contract with a different insurance company. And no one [cough] would get billed for expensive tests and medications ordered around the time they switched between private plans.

I believe in this vision for health care in America as both a doctor and a patient. I believe that when we finally make the transition we will realize, collectively, almost right away, that our old, private, employer-based insurance system was barbaric, and we’ll marvel that we suffered under it for so long. And I think if we settle for Medicare buy-in, or another half measure, then truly universal health care will remain elusive until a future crop of leaders restarts the debate all over again, and gets it right. But we won’t ever make the leap if the country’s most powerful liberals refuse to make the full, honest argument to the public, and let the chips fall where they may.

6) Ending mass incarceration means fundamentally re-thinking our approach to violent crime.  Michelle Alexander:

And yet, as Danielle Sered points out in her profoundly necessary book, “Until We Reckon,” if we fail to face violence in our communities honestly, courageously and with profound compassion for the survivors — many of whom are also perpetrators of harm — our nation will never break its addiction to caging human beings.

Fifty-four percent of the people currently held in state prisons have been convicted of a crime classified as violent. We will never slash our prison population by 50 percent — the goal of a number of current campaigns — much less get back to levels of incarceration that we had before the race to incarcerate began in the early 1980s, without addressing the one issue most reformers avoid: violence.

Reckoning with violence in a meaningful way does not mean “getting tough” in the way that phrase has been used for decades; nor does it mean being “smart on crime” to the extent that phrase has become shorthand for being “tough” on violent crime but “soft” on nonviolent crime — a formulation that continues to be embraced by some so-called “progressive prosecutors” today.

7) In a normal world, people would still be talking about how insane and incoherent Trump’s CPAC speech was.  Or talking about that at all.

8) We’re always hearing about how Big Pharma has to charge so much to bring us innovative new medicines.  The reality, to a substantial degree, they have to charge so much so that their executives can be egregiously over-compensated:

Despite their claims, the big American drug companies have not been using profits from high prices to ramp up investment in drug development. Our research shows that for 2008 through 2017, 17 pharmaceutical companies in the S. & P. 500 distributed just over 100 percent of their combined profits to shareholders, $300 billion as buybacks and $290 billion as dividends. These distributions were 12 percent greater than what these companies spent on research and development. [emphases mine]

With most of their compensation coming from exercising stock options and stock awards, senior executives benefit immensely. We gathered data on the 500 highest-paid executives in the United States from 2008 through 2017. The number who came from the drug industry ranged from 21 (in 2008 and 2011) to 42 (in 2014). The total compensation of those 42 executives averaged about $73 million, compared with an average of an already over-the-top $32 million for all 500 in 2014.

A total of 88 percent of the 2014 compensation was based on stock. In 2017, 28 drug executives in the top 500 averaged more than $41 million in total compensation, with 83 percent stock-based. By jacking up product prices and distributing the increased profits to shareholders, executives lift stock prices and their take-home pay.

Our research for the Institute for New Economic Thinking demonstrates that these companies, even when they show substantial R. & D. spending on their books, do not have much to show for it.

For example, Merck distributed 133 percent of its profits to shareholders from 2008 to 2017, and Pfizer 107 percent. Although both companies recorded large sums spent on R. & D. — Merck $80 billion and Pfizer $81 billion over the decade — these companies generated most of their revenues by acquiring companies with patented drugs on the market, rather than by developing their own new drugs. Since 2001, by our analysis, Pfizer has had significant revenues from only four internally originated and developed products. Since Merck’s merger with Schering-Plough in 2009, it has had only two blockbuster drugs, of which only one was the result of its own research.

The public foots the bill for this behavior. Not only do we pay high drug prices, our tax dollars supply more than $30 billion per year for life-sciences research through the National Institutes of Health. Yet, like most American companies, the drug industry claims that its corporations need to pay lower corporate taxes to remain competitive globally.

9) The SNL cold open on Michael Cohen was really good.

10) Eliot Cohen on the GOP cowardice is great:

And then there is the gray mass of Republicans in the middle, the ones in the House who voted with the president in favor of declaring a national emergency, and the ones who will do so in the Senate. They are not as sleazy as Cohen, as pugnaciously nasty as Gaetz, or as principled as Gallagher. They are simpler souls: They are cowards.

Talk to them privately, and they will confess that there is no emergency at the southern border—there is a problem, to be sure, but one whose seriousness has actually diminished over time. They know that the congressional leadership had the votes to build walls there for the first two years of the administration but did not manage it. They know, for that matter, that border security involves much more than walls. They know that the president is invoking emergency powers as an electoral ploy, and because he is impatient.

They know, in their timid breasts, that they would have howled with indignation if Barack Obama had declared a national emergency in such a circumstance. As they stare at their coffee cup at breakfast, the thought occurs to them that a future left-wing president could make dangerous use of these same powers—because Speaker Nancy Pelosi rubbed that fact in their face. Some of the brighter ones might even realize that emergency powers are a favored tool of authoritarians everywhere.

But they are afraid. They are afraid of being primaried. They are afraid of being called out by the bully whom they secretly despise but to whom they pledge public fealty. They are afraid of having to find another occupation than serving in elective office. And the most conceited of the lot—and there are quite a few of those, perhaps more in the Senate than in the House—think that it would be a tragedy if the country no longer had their service at its disposal.

11) I read The Mars Room because it got so many great reviews.  And Rachel Kushner can really write… but is it too much to actually want a plot?

12) Catherine Rampell with more ways Republican deregulation hurts consumers

For markets to work, you need a system where either the government protects consumers or consumers can adequately defend themselves. Or both. But you can’t have neither. The “neither” option lands you in a kleptocracy, which is basically where Republicans have been leading the country for the past few years.

Happily, a new bill — introduced by Democratic lawmakers last week — would restore at least some of consumers’ diminished tools for self-defense.

Republican politicians love to talk about their deregulatory successes. They’re not exaggerating: Under President Trump’s leadership, Republicans have repealed or watered down tons of federal rules. If you look through a list of these deregulatory efforts, you’ll notice a striking pattern: Many of them loosen the limits for how much harm businesses can inflict upon consumers. [emphases mine]

13) Great Vox interview with my NCSU colleague and friend, Sarah Bowen (and her co-authors) on the social pressures and unrealistic expectations about home cooking.

14) I’m working on this post during a hockey game–alas, my Carolina Hurricanes are getting killed.  They are playing like they are high on marijuana right now.  The good news is, though, that the NHL, unlike most sports leagues, actually has a totally sane policy when it comes to marijuana.  As I’ve written before, it insane that other pro sports leagues penalize their players for this when there are obviously no performance-enhancing aspects.

15) David Brooks comes around on the case for reparations:

We’re a nation coming apart at the seams, a nation in which each tribe has its own narrative and the narratives are generally resentment narratives. The African-American experience is somehow at the core of this fragmentation — the original sin that hardens the heart, separates Americans from one another and serves as model and fuel for other injustices.

The need now is to consolidate all the different narratives and make them reconciliation and possibility narratives, in which all feel known. That requires direct action, a concrete gesture of respect that makes possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life. Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

16) Somehow I missed this in the New Yorker when it came out in 2017, but this story, “A Pill to Make Exercise Obsolete: What if a drug could give you all the benefits of a workout?” is pretty fascinating.

17) Great story in the Nation of the incredibly, stupid, short-sighted, and punitive policy that is Arkansas’ policy of work requirements to receive Medicaid.

Since January 2018, 14 other states have requested the ability to impose their own work requirements on Medicaid. They would be wise to take stock of what’s happened in Arkansas. “Don’t do it,” said Numan, adding: “There’s no good way of implementing this kind of policy.” Even federal agencies are taking note. In November, the Medicaid and CHIP Payment and Access Commission, a nonpartisan legislative-branch agency, sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar calling for the department to hold off on approving work-requirement requests based on the situation in Arkansas. In February, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) also wrote to Azar urging him to stop approving Medicaid work requirements, saying their concerns have “play[ed] out in real life in the State of Arkansas.”

Numan wishes the state had put its energy into helping people get the support they need to work, such as education, child care, transportation, and, of course, health care. The very idea of work requirements in Medicaid makes little sense. “Medicaid is a work support,” Alker asserted. “If you want to support work, it makes sense to expand Medicaid. If you want to stigmatize the program and [add] a lot of red-tape barriers, then do a work requirement.”

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Quick hits (part I)

  1. Jim Danielson says:

    17) Do you honestly believe the reason behind this policy has anything to do with reducing unemployment?

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