Contrarian Government

fJust enough voters in just the right places were unhappy with just about everything in their lives. They blamed anyone in charge of anything – anyone in power of any kind – for their lot in life. They had it in for all politicians, and that would include establishment Republicans – and Muslims and “Mexicans” and those Black Lives Matter thugs, who want to kill policemen, and Colin Kaepernick, and gays too, and urban hipsters and the fancy-pants experts and goofy scientists and “Hollywood” – whatever that means. They were a bit paranoid. They’d buy into this conspiracy theory or that – maybe Hillary Clinton really did run a child sex-slave operation out of a pizza shop in northern Virginia, and maybe that did involve cannibalism – and the Russians loved it. They had a building full of trolls outside of Moscow, with fake accounts, pretending to be concerned Americans flooding Facebook and Twitter, reinforcing such things. They could cause trouble. They could amplify the unhappiness. They could ramp up the paranoia. They could mess up America, so they did.

They may or may not have intended to get Donald Trump elected president – that would only be an added bonus – but Donald Trump, early on, sensed what was going on. A critical mass of people hated all politicians? He wouldn’t be one. He’d be vulgar and break all the rules. He wouldn’t be reasonable. He’d be ruthless. He’d fed the paranoia. He’d sow chaos. He staged a guerrilla war to take over the Republican Party. The Republican Party never knew what hit them. He won the nomination, and then it was a guerrilla war to take over the government. He won the presidency – by being against everything, even the presidency.

Then things got tricky. Stephen Kinzer once put that this way – “Guerrilla leaders win wars by being paranoid and ruthless. Once they take power, they are expected to abandon those qualities and embrace opposite ones: tolerance, compromise and humility. Almost none manages to do so.”

Donald Trump has not managed to do that. He is, at heart, a contrarian. If everyone agrees something is so, he will say it isn’t so, even if he knows better. Getting him to admit that the Russians meddled in the last election was like pulling teeth. He finally acknowledged that every single one of our intelligence agencies agreed that the Russians did just that, and that there is all sorts of overwhelming evidence that they did, so he grudgingly said that this did happen, finally – but he was clearly not happy saying that. It was the same when he conceded that Obama was born in the United States – a one sentence statement, and he walked away and wouldn’t take questions.

It’s the same with climate change, and this week it was this:

In late 1992, 1,700 scientists from around the world issued a dire “warning to humanity.” They said humans had pushed Earth’s ecosystems to their breaking point and were well on the way to ruining the planet. The letter listed environmental impacts like they were biblical plagues – stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution, the collapse of fisheries and loss of soil productivity, deforestation, species loss and catastrophic global climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

“If not checked,” wrote the scientists, led by particle physicist and Union of Concerned Scientists co-founder Henry Kendall, “many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.”

But things were only going to get worse. To mark the letter’s 25th anniversary, researchers have issued a bracing follow-up. In a communique published Monday in the journal BioScience, more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries assess the world’s latest responses to various environmental threats. Once again, they find us sorely wanting.

“Humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” they write.

More than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries say that. Donald Trump says the opposite. He’s a contrarian and contrarians have fragile ego structures. If a contrarian has to agree with everyone else then they’re not special at all. They’re nobody, really, or anybody. They might as well be dead. Perhaps most Americans feel this way – they believe in American Exceptionalism – and Donald Trump certainly feels that way. He wants to be special. He wants to run a contrarian government. From now on the American economy will run on coal and fossil fuels. Screw the Paris climate accord. Jobs and national wealth are more important. And what do scientists know anyway?

Contrarian government, however, is a contradiction in terms. Contrarian government isn’t government. It’s chaos. In the Guardian, Damian Carrington reports from Bonn:

The Trump team was heckled and interrupted by a protest song at the UN’s climate change summit in Bonn on Monday after using its only official appearance to say fossil fuels were vital to reducing poverty around the world and to saving jobs in the US.

While Donald Trump’s special adviser on energy and environment, David Banks, said cutting emissions was a US priority, “energy security, economic prosperity are higher priorities”, he said. “The president has a responsibility to protect jobs and industry across the country.”

Other attendees at the summit condemned the argument.

“Promoting coal at a climate summit is like promoting tobacco at a cancer summit,” said Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and a UN special envoy for cities and climate change.

This didn’t go well, but there was one bright spot:

When questioned, just one of the four energy executives Trump’s team chose to speak at the event expressed support for his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement.

That was the only bright spot:

The event was interrupted when about three-quarters of the 200-strong audience stood up and began singing in protest. To the tune of God Bless the USA, the mostly young protesters sang: “So you claim to be an American, but we see right through your greed, it’s killing right across the world, for all that coal money.”

The protesters then left, but the panel was heckled, with angry members of the audience shouting “bunch of liars” and “clean coal is bullshit”.

The appearance of an executive from Peabody Energy, the US’s biggest coal miner, was particularly provocative. In 2016, the Guardian revealed the company had funded at least two dozen groups that cast doubt on manmade climate change and oppose environment regulations.

That executive from Peabody Energy was another contrarian – everyone else is wrong – so this whole thing was doomed:

Another panelist, Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association, illustrated his points in favor of fossil fuels using future energy projections from ExxonMobil, BP and Statoil. He said US energy companies were already cutting carbon and was the only panelist to back Trump’s Paris pullout, saying: “Frankly, we don’t need the Paris plan.”

But the US event prompted fierce criticism at the climate summit, where countries are working to implement the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. Coal is both the dirtiest fossil fuel and a cause of air pollution that causes millions of early deaths every year.

“If the Trump administration won’t lead, it should at least get out of the way,” said Bloomberg, who is also a backer of “America’s pledge”. That effort saw 20 states, more than 50 big cities and 60 big businesses confirm their commitment to the Paris goals on Saturday – a group that would have the third biggest economy in the world if it were a country.

No one was happy:

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, who advises some of the least developed countries, said: “Any country or company continuing to champion coal and even other fossil fuels from now on would be willfully carrying out a crime against humanity.” Professor Piers Forster, at the University of Leeds, UK, said: “Coal is not clean – it is dangerous. Coal emissions have to rapidly reduce to zero. Those who argue coal has a future are putting the planet under real risk.”

And there are some simple facts here:

Two dozen of the 196 countries backing the Paris agreement have included efficient coal technology in their national contributions to cutting emissions. But predictions for future coal use have the plummeted in recent years as the cost of renewable energy has dropped. In 2013, the International Energy Agency expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040; today it anticipates just 1% growth, while China and India have recently cancelled plans for hundreds of new coal plants.

Andrew Steer, CEO of the World Resources Institute, said the US event was irrelevant: “It is a total distraction. It will not change the overwhelming momentum away from coal. The closing of coal plants in the US has accelerated since Trump was elected. It’s King Canute trying to hold back the tide.”

There is a rising tide:

Earlier on Monday in Bonn, the US’s neighbors Canada and Mexico further isolated Washington by announcing a new partnership with the 15 US states that have pledged strong climate action. Canada’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, and her Mexican counterpart, Rodolfo Lacy, joined with the governors of Washington and California, Jay Inslee and Jerry Brown, to form a group that will focus on phasing out coal power and boosting clean power and transport.

“We are all in this together,” said McKenna. “The countries that move forward and realize there is a $30 trillion opportunity will be creating clean jobs and growing their economy.”

Inslee added: “Trump is a blip in history. Not one country has expressed that there is any doubt about climate action just because Trump is still a climate denier. He can tweet his fingers off, but he won’t stop us. If you want to grow your economy, focus on the jobs of the future.”

Trump is a blip in history? Maybe so, but he’s special. There’s no one like him. If everyone agrees something is so, he will say it isn’t so, even if he knows better. That’s special.

On the other hand, there was this:

Peabody Energy’s [Holly] Krutka told the audience that technologies to significantly reduce carbon emissions from coal and natural gas would be vital to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement.

“Nations around the world continue to use coal,” Krutka said. “We cannot ignore their emissions or we cannot meet international climate goals.” And she said technology to capture carbon emissions from power plants is “dramatically underfunded.”

Despite the high-profile event, the White House has been silent about that technology, and White House press aides did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Energy has continued to issue research grants to capture coal emissions, but the White House also proposed halving the funding for the agency’s fossil office, which handles carbon-capture research.

Donald Trump cut the funding. That figures. He won the presidency by being against everything, even the presidency. Contrarian government really is a contradiction in terms.

All of this puzzles Kevin Drum:

If Trump wanted to skip the conference, that would be fine. He’s already committed to pulling out of the Paris agreement anyway. Or, if his team attended but didn’t say anything, that would be fine too. Or if they attended but talked only about the (very) few things they’re doing that are climate friendly.

But to attend a climate conference and use it as a stage for telling everyone that the United States is going to produce lots and lots of coal, and fuck you if you don’t like it? What kind of person does that? Does Trump really think that Appalachian coal miners are ever going to hear about this – or care about it if they do?

Drum just doesn’t get it:

It would be great if Trump announced a massive new push to develop carbon sequestration technology that could be exported to poor countries still reliant on coal. But he hasn’t done that. He just blathers about “clean coal” as if that’s the natural state of anything that comes out of US soil. I’m not sure what the point was of giving everyone in the world such an obvious middle finger, but then, I’m not Donald Trump.

Drum doesn’t understand contrarians, or their fragile egos, but it’s not just Trump. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann reports this:

Faced with difficult budget math that could force them to scale back their tax ambitions, GOP senators have decided to fund some of their proposed tax cuts by repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate. Killing the rule, which requires Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a tax penalty, could save the government $338 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office – essentially by dissuading people from signing up for Medicaid or buying federally subsidized coverage on the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges.

Several high-profile Republicans – including Sens. Tom Cotton, Ron Johnson, and Ted Cruz – have been pushing this idea for weeks, and they’ve won support from President Trump, who tweeted enthusiastically about it on Monday…

They still want to kill Obamacare? Isn’t that over? This hapless Congress couldn’t actually repeal and replace Obamacare. They tried. All the Republican alternatives hurt tens of millions of Americans. All their alternatives polled at about a seventeen percent approval rating. Americans hated all their alternatives, and key Republicans bailed. They couldn’t even muster fifty of their own votes for that one last try in the Senate – but Trump had promised something. He’s the ultimate contrarian, and now so is “his” party, and this is something, and Weissmann notes that this might not seem so bad to the public:

The political logic is straightforward. Under the budget they passed, Republicans are only allowed to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit with their tax cuts. This is currently forcing them to make politically awkward choices, like raising taxes on some middle-income families in order to slash rates deeply on corporations. Meanwhile, the mandate is the least popular part of Obamacare, which Republicans have vowed to dismantle anyway, and the White House has suggested that it might just stop enforcing the thing if Congress doesn’t act. Why not sack it and get more money to play with on taxes?

That makes sense, but Weissmann points out the obvious problems:

For one, killing the mandate would leave 13 million fewer Americans with health coverage, according to the CBO, which is why it saves the government money. Some of those uninsured will be young, healthy people who don’t want to spend money on insurance unless the government forces them to. But others are low-income Americans who don’t realize they qualify for Medicaid or Obamacare’s premium subsidies and won’t bother to find out, without the mandate nudging them to go get covered. The CBO thinks Medicaid’s rolls will drop by about 5 million.

Beyond that, ending the mandate will mean higher insurance prices for people who still buy on the individual market. The entire point of the rule is to bring down the average cost of coverage, by forcing more young, profitable customers into the market. It’s unclear how effectively it has accomplished that goal, which may be one reason why the CBO thinks most local insurance markets will survive without it. But the office still thinks that eliminating the mandate will lead to a 10 percent average bump in premiums. Many Americans would end up paying more for their insurance so that Republicans could lavish their tax cuts on Walmart and the Koch brothers. And some, the CBO believes, will be priced out of coverage entirely.

So this fixes things and leaves thirteen million fewer Americans with health coverage, with those with coverage facing a huge spike in premiums. That’s a contrarian fix to a problem that isn’t a problem at all. Contrarian government is a contradiction, but we have a contrarian government:

These consequences may not mean much to most Republicans, who showed a stunning lack of concern about actual health care policy outcomes during their attempt to repeal Obamacare. Others do seem to be a bit concerned: South Dakota Sen. John Thune reportedly said that the deal to kill the mandate also involves passing the bipartisan Obamacare stabilization bill, Alexander-Murray. (Details of this are still sketchy).

But the one thing the GOP does overwhelmingly care about is passing its tax bill, which they view as a last-ditch effort to head off a donor revolt going into 2018. And tying tax cuts to anything that smells like Obamacare repeal seems like it will make that harder.

But this is like Bonn:

The Republican tax plan is not overwhelmingly popular with voters. But the bill hasn’t roused the same sort of impassioned opposition as Obamacare repeal did. The mandate itself may be unpopular. But by targeting what many still consider a key part of Obamacare, Republicans risk rousing all of the same, very pissed-off forces that arrayed against their several attempts to repeal the law earlier this year.

And yet, Republicans appear to have stared into this empty power outlet, thought hard, and decided to stick a fork in it.

Contrarians do that sort of thing. Don’t stick that fork in that empty power outlet? That’s what everyone says, but what do they know? Contrarians are special. Zap.

And there’s this:

The GOP tax bill could trigger automatic cuts worth $136 billion from mandatory spending in 2018, including $25 billion in Medicare cuts, if Congress doesn’t find another way to offset its deficit increases, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The tax bill would add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the deficit over a decade. Congressional “pay-as-you-go” rules, called pay-go, require that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) automatically cut mandatory spending if legislation increases the deficit beyond a certain point.

Zap. Those on Medicare get zapped by the contrarians, but there’s more:

Non-exempted accounts would be virtually wiped out. Those include agricultural subsidies, some health funds linked to the Affordable Care Act, Customs and Border Patrol operations and funds in the Student Loan Administration, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budgetary watchdog group.

Congress could avoid the sequestration by passing a bill to circumvent the pay-go rules, but that would require Democratic support in the Senate, and may lose the support of fiscal hawks in the Republican Party.

A critical mass of Americans was unhappy with just about everything in their lives. They blamed anyone in charge of anything – anyone in power of any kind – for their lot in life. They had it in for all politicians and they seemed to want a contrarian government, one that would do what everyone else said was stupid. What did everyone else know?

They got their contrarian government, but contrarian government is a contradiction in terms. Contrarian government isn’t government. It’s chaos. And it may kill us all.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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