After the last couple of months of scandals, it’s hard to blame Americans who wonder exactly how far our cynicism about big government should go. With the Internal Revenue Service discriminating against conservatives and Tea Party groups, the Justice Department spying on journalists and unanswered questions still lingering about the Benghazi terror attack and the lies the Obama administration told about it, the government’s credibility has nose-dived along with trust in our institutions. These cases deserve to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb by Congress, and those who seek to minimize or rationalize the outrageous behavior we’ve learned about are sacrificing their own reputations for what appears to be partisan motivations. But even in this season of scandal, it’s necessary for thinking citizens to resist the temptation to believe every conspiracy theory that comes down the block or to impute the most evil motives to the government in every possible circumstance.
Understanding the difference between legitimate government scandals and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories is not always easy. That’s why so many Americans are assuming the worst about the National Security Agency’s accumulation of data about everyone’s phone calls. That’s especially true since many conservatives—most of whom were fierce defenders of the equally broad though perhaps not quite so transparent information gathering conducted by the Bush administration—have good reason not to trust the Obama administration. Yet that doesn’t relieve them of the obligation to assess the revelations of leaker Edward Snowden by the same criteria they did Bush’s actions. The same is true when we look at the latest conspiracy theory to float up to the top of the news cycle: the allegations in a new documentary that the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 that killed 230 people was no accident but rather the result of some external explosion that was subsequently covered up by the government. In both these cases, we do well to look closely at the charges of conspiracy but should not buy into unsubstantiated conspiracy theories just because we’re in a doubting mood about the government and the people who run it.
The NSA intercepts sound ominous. But the closer one looks at the metadata collection, the harder it is to lump it together with the other scandals that have seized our attention this spring. The information obtained by the government is far reaching, but it is clearly intended as a way to monitor phone calls by known terrorist targets to people in the United States. Put simply, unless you’re getting calls from al-Qaeda operatives, the government won’t be tapping your phone or seeking to listen to your calls or read your emails. Given that Congress and the FISA court supervised the project it isn’t possible to argue that it was used to target political enemies of the administration or to unreasonably intrude upon the lives of ordinary Americans. Moreover, given the testimony from security officials about the way it helped stop more than 50 terror plots on the United States, it’s also difficult to argue that it was an extraneous fishing expedition which did not save lives.
One can, of course, dismiss those accounts of foiled plots, but unless you are willing to believe that al-Qaeda and its affiliates are really as dead as President Obama was fraudulently claiming during his re-election campaign, it is reasonable to assume that such plots did happen and—unlike the Boston Marathon bombers who slipped through the cracks of the system—were stopped. Suspicion of the government is as American as apple pie, but in wartime—and we have been at war with Islamist terrorists since before 9/11—we have no choice but to put our trust in the institutions set up to protect the homeland. Since it is clear those agencies have done a good job of preventing another 9/11 under both Bush and Obama, it is neither fair nor reasonable to treat them as if they were the Cincinnati office of the IRS. Conspiracies may exist, but they must have some rhyme or reason and be able to be proven. In this case, the theories about the use of this information being a nefarious plot doesn’t pass the smell test.
The same may well be true in the TWA Flight 800 case.
I haven’t seen the new documentary and will reserve full judgment about it until I do. But I have to confess that reports about the film and the comments from those who were tasked with the investigation about the theories it promotes leads me to be highly skeptical about its claims. I’m no expert about the case or about plane crashes. I’m agnostic about its specific claims about whether the plane could have gone down in the way that government agencies ultimately said it did. But I do know a thing or two about conspiracy theories.
They generally crop up because human beings always prefer to believe that senseless acts have not only a sensible explanation but also one that fits into their views about the world in general. That’s why liberals and left-wingers still claim that right-wingers killed John F. Kennedy even though there’s no evidence to back up that charge and the murderer was actually a Communist. Such theories help make an otherwise random and hard-to-understand world easier to live with.
In the TWA 800 case, the conspiracy theory doesn’t look like it will pass the smell test. The so-called whistle-blowers not only can’t explain how a missile could have hit the plane (since the pet theory about a U.S. Navy training exercise gone awry was sunk long ago) but why an FBI investigative team that was predisposed to think it an act of terrorism would have covered up such a conclusion. The only way to buy into the film’s thesis appears to be based on a blind distrust of government that doesn’t seem based in any hard proof. But it does give us a villain to blame that an accident based on faulty wiring doesn’t provide.
More to the point, we also know that the original promoter of the conspiracy theorist was a crackpot. Former White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger’s much publicized accusations of a cover up was based on recycled lies culled from the Internet, not, as he claimed, a government intelligence report.
The point about government misconduct is that sooner or later our democratic system and free press will ferret out the truth. We do well to be cynical about any government, but blindly assuming that everything it says is a lie is even more irrational than taking administration spin at face value. But merely assuming that the real world that we live in mirrors the fictional world of Hollywood conspiracy theory movies, in which the powers that be are always out to kill and cover up and everything we think we know is a lie, is not a reliable guide for understanding complex events. It is, in fact, a psychosis, not a blueprint for government accountability.
Scandals? Yes. Conspiracy Theories? No.
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Is Iran becoming a Chinese proxy?
More than two years after Secretary of State John Kerry and his European Union counterpart Federica Mogherini acquiesced to the last Iranian demands and signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has the threat from Iran actually diminished?
Iran’s ballistic missile program continues to expand rapidly. Yesterday, Iran inaugurated its new launch facility by sending a rocket into low earth orbit. The same technology could be used to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.
For those living in the Middle East, the idea that the Iranian threat has diminished is laughable. Tehran continues to eviscerate Lebanon from the inside out through its proxy, Hezbollah. More than 1,000 Iranians have died fighting in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Iran has stepped up its efforts to undermine both Yemen and Bahrain.
Rather than show any indication that it seeks rapprochement with the West, Iran increasingly appears to be using its relationship with China and Russia to stymie the West. Consider the following from the Iranian press: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ special airborne unit is training in China with Chinese special forces, who are drilling the Iranians on artillery as well as parachuting and jumping from Chinese Z8KA helicopters.
Given the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in projecting Iranian power, as well as training proxy forces and terrorist groups, it’s not a leap to believe that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps might take the lessons learned in China and transmit them to Hezbollah, Hamas, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Kerry myopically viewed diplomacy as a compromise to resolve conflict. He never understood—and his aides were too ambitious to warn him—that countries like Iran, China, and Russia often use diplomacy insincerely as an asymmetric strategy to advance their own power while hamstringing the United States. That does not mean that diplomacy is not valuable; it remains a tool of statecraft. But to enter into it naively severely undercuts the security of the United States and its allies.
Tweeting his way into obscurity.
Exactly two years ago yesterday, I published a blog post on this site called Trump: The Case for Despairing—About America. I wrote: “The issue with Trump is that his approach can only be called ‘the politics of unseriousness.’ He engages with no issue, merely offers a hostile and pithy soundbite bromide about it. He yammers. He describes how wonderful things will be when he acts against something or other without explaining how he will act, what he will do, or how it will work.”
Reader, we married him. He is our president. And his unseriousness just played a key role in the disastrous fate of the Republican effort to save the country from ObamaCare.
Remember that it was Trump, in the weeks before his inauguration, who went on “60 Minutes” and insisted that repealing ObamaCare and replacing it simply had to happen at the same moment. That announcement—made with little or no preparation or forethought, it won’t surprise you to recall—instantly made the job of coming up with a political strategy to secure victories on health care vastly more difficult.
It was also a mark of that unseriousness. Here’s what I mean: Say a President Trump who was a different sort of person had convened meetings during the transition period to devise a long-term strategy for the passage of health-care reform legislation. In those meetings, all kinds of obvious scenarios could have been gamed out, including the nature of the attacks against reform. With those scenarios in mind, arguments could have been devised to counter the attacks.
For example, on the question of “lost” coverage, Republicans could have commissioned studies to demonstrate (as Avik Roy detailed last week) that the vast majority of those who would “lose” coverage would be people who chose to do so as adults in a free marketplace. With such studies in hand even before the possible legislation had been proposed, studies showing 6 million rather than 24 million would be thrown out of the marketplace, strategies to provide them with stopgap coverage could then have been devised and announced before the attacks came.
This is what a serious effort to enact health-care reform would have entailed—both a substantive approach to answer weaknesses in the GOP effort and a communications approach to go on the offensive to explain why this would be better than the status quo.
There was nothing. Trump wandered around the White House eating two scoops of ice cream and watching TV and tweeting. He left the communicating to Republicans on Capitol Hill, who proved uniquely incapable of making any kind of case for anything. But cut them some slack—with no administration involvement whatever, they were both shaping bills and trying to keep Republicans on board and figuring out tricky ways to pass legislation without triggering the need for 60 Senate votes. For them also to be in charge of selling the bill when selling isn’t really part of either Paul Ryan’s or Mitch McConnell’s skill set was jawdroppingly negligent.
There is only one possible salesman for a major national shift in policy, and that is the president of the United States. And Trump is a salesman. The problem is he knows only how to sell himself. He has no clue how to sell anything else.
Ryan and McConnell had to focus on bringing together people with wildly varying constituencies and purposes, and basically ended up throwing crap against the walls to see what would stick. The final humiliation of the process on Thursday—in which the Senate basically agreed to debate a bill that night that had only come into existence at lunchtime—was the necessary end result of seven months in which the president of the United States ate up all the oxygen in Washington with his ugly, petty, seething, resentful rages and foolishnesses as expressed in 140 illiterate characters.
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. But this failure was in the cards the minute Trump both limited his party’s freedom of action by blathering ignorantly on national television and decided to conduct his presidency as though he were Judge Judy.
A bell that can't be un-rung.
Let me get this straight. Last night, Republicans in the Senate were virtually paralyzed with the fear that the bill on which they were voting “aye” might actually become law. They were so terrified, in fact, that some key senators would only vote for the measure with House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assurances that his chamber would never pass “skinny repeal” outright. Only by the slimmest of margins did the bill that no one wanted to see become law fail when Senator John McCain surprisingly voted “no.” And now everyone is mad at McCain for killing a bill that they all hated anyway.
This confused and humiliating debacle puts a period on the GOP’s first attempt to repeal ObamaCare by applying the political capital they’ve accumulated from six years of promising to repeal it. The word “first” is key. Many assume that the GOP now has a choice; maybe they rethink the reformation of the Affordable Care Act (or try another attempt at repeal), or maybe they move on to other items on the agenda. The reality is that health care is never going to go away for either party.
Republicans are now obliged to administer ObamaCare. A Republican-led White House oversees subsidies to insurers to defer the cost of low-income ObamaCare enrollees. Donald Trump has on more than one occasion threatened to close off the spigot and allow ObamaCare to wither on the vine. The GOP in Congress, too, will have to own the Affordable Care Act. Every time they pass a budget or a continuing resolution, they will be ratifying the Affordable Care Act’s taxes and passing that on to the president to sign.
Even absent Republican meddling, ObamaCare is not stable. Despite an infusion of $2.4 billion in tax dollars, 20 of 24 ObamaCare non-profit health insurance cooperatives have collapsed. The National Alliance of State Health Cooperatives, which represented those cooperative efforts to compete with private sector insurers, has closed its doors.
Insurers continue to flee the Affordable Care Act’s insurance exchanges. When Trump took the oath of office, there were 1,000 counties served by only a single insurance provider (with a handful of counties utterly bereft of participating insurers). That trend has only accelerated. Amid an exodus, Iowa’s last major Affordable Care Act insurer threatened to pull out of the exchanges—leaving the state without ACA-linked insurance in 2018. In May, Aetna abandoned Virginia. Humana pulled out of Tennessee in February. Blue Cross Blue Shield has picked up the slack in some places but, in Alabama, for example, it spends $1.20 for every $1 it collects in premiums. This is not a sustainable status quo.
Democrats appear genuinely convinced that the 1,000 seats their party lost over the course of the Obama years were the result of mass hysteria from which the nation has finally awoken. They seem to think that the fever has broken, and the public is now convinced that this onerous law is popular in its own right and not just when compared to Republican alternatives. The system is broken, and someone has to repair it. Even if it becomes the Union siege of Fredericksburg, in which wave after wave was mowed down by dug-in defenders, Republicans are obliged to keep making runs at Obamacare. The Democrats, too, will have to “fix” the law, as so many insist they must. By 2016, even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were resigned to the fact that legislation to relieve the stress on insurers was an imperative. But what the Democratic Congress wants isn’t what the party’s liberal activist base wants.
Republicans performed a politically savvy maneuver on Thursday evening (yes, just one) by compelling their Democratic counterparts to vote on a “Medicare-for-all” single-payer national health plan. The bait drew precisely zero votes in favor, with 43 Democrats opting only to vote “present.” Centrist Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Jo Donnelly and Independent Sen. Angus King contributed to a total of 57 “no” votes. Congressional Democrats’ trouble getting to yes on single payer isn’t all about tactics. A June effort to pass a single-payer system in the state of California failed because, as Democratic Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon wrote, it failed to address major hurdles including delivery of care, cost controls, and, most important, financing. The program was estimated to cost $400 billion per year—more than twice the state budget in 2017. At a national scale, a single payer program would be a struggle to finance. Democratic lawmakers may soon find themselves as shackled to the unrealistic hopes of their base voters as are Republicans today.
Republicans surely would like to move on to reforming the tax code for the first time since 1986, but that won’t be a simple task. All the while, the taxes in the Affordable Care Act and the revenue dedicated to it will hinder their efforts. Democrats, too, would love to be able to move on from the Affordable Care Act, but they are similarly doomed forever to tinker with “fixes”—at least until their liberal base voters cobble together a party in which nationalized health care is the consensus. Even if lawmakers wanted to move on from health care, they can’t.
Sleepwalking toward a revolution.
The most important news of the week was buried underneath an avalanche of dispatches involving palace intrigue in the White House and the Republican Party’s effort to deconstruct the Affordable Care Act. A team of scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University had, according to the MIT Technology Review, used a relatively new gene-editing technique to alter the DNA of a single-cell human embryo.
“Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans,” the report read. This represents the first known (emphasis on known) effort to genetically modify a human embryo, and it won’t be the last.
The speed with which this scientific milestone was reached has outpaced society’s ability to process it. Already, the outlines of a conflict over the nature of this practice—its ethicality, its utility, and its displacing effects on the American workforce—are visible, but no one seems prepared to talk about them. What was once science fiction is perfectly thinkable today. It’s time to do some thinking.
First, it is incumbent upon Americans of all political stripes—not just conservatives or the faithful—to consider the moral implications of embryonic genetic engineering. In April of 2015, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins issued a statement pledging that “NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos,” but this prohibition does not apply to private endeavors. Public ethos guides private industry, but what is public philosophy regarding the interference with genetic destiny?
Are we obliged to eradicate genetic disorders? Is it unethical not to intervene in the development of an embryo if we have the capacity to alleviate future suffering and hardship? Is it morally questionable to select for various cosmetic traits that prospective parents might find desirable? Do we engage in this process of upending the natural order without knowing the long-term effects of genetic manipulation? Is a modified population a form of eugenics?
This leads us to ponder the public-policy implications of a world in which genetic modification is a fact of life. NIH guidelines will constrain some in the United States from overreaching, but every nation will have its own standards, and genetic medical tourism is undoubtedly the industry of the future. Should Congress seek to limit or even prohibit the practice of elective embryonic genetic engineering? Is such a notion constitutional, to say nothing of economically and socially advantageous?
The American right is guaranteed to be suspicious of an activity that intervenes in the spheres of natural life previously exclusive to the divine. “I don’t trust ‘the scientists’ to regulate themselves,” wrote National Review’s Wesley Smith. “Mr. President: We need a presidential bioethics/biotechnology commission now!” A commission is fine, but one with an eye toward restricting technological advance is swimming against the tide. Scientific achievement cannot be prevented—Pandora’s Box cannot be un-opened, and it is far better that the person doing the opening is someone subject to laws and mores than someone beyond those constraints. Smith’s fear is, however, valid. It’s reminiscent of the way in which automation crashed over the American economy like a tsunami.
Simple robots have been stealing away from Americans the ability to be paid for the completion of rote tasks for over a generation, but it was the onset of artificial intelligence that truly upended the economy. Only in the last few years were occupations previously thought immune to the effects of technology imperiled; office administration, sales and service jobs, and transportation may all headed for the chopping block. In February of 2016, Citibank in coordination with the University of Oxford predicted that automation will threaten 47 percent of existing U.S. jobs.
The effect of this radically disruptive technological revolution on American politics is only just beginning to be felt. What seemed like science fiction only a few years ago—for example, increasingly ubiquitous self-piloted commercial and military vehicles and self-service kiosks at food and retail outlets—are a reality today. And they will create an army of otherwise unemployable low-skilled workers who demand some legislative remedy for their condition. Is the prospect of a stratified, dystopian society envisioned in films like “Gattaca” so hard to envision? If not, how can it be prevented before those class structures become intractable? Is genetic modification at birth a privilege reserved for the nation’s wealthiest, or should all Americans have access to a potentially life-saving therapy?
These all seem like far-fetched questions today, but they might be standard in only five or ten years. Society’s capacity to cope with technological advance is not infrequently outpaced by the speed of those advances, and genetic modification will surely not buck that trend. It is, however, incumbent upon us to think about the consequences of that civilization-shaping breakthrough; what could go wrong, how it will benefit mankind, and how best to guide its development. The American right has as many modern Ned Ludds as do their progressive counterparts. There will be those who rage against technological advance as though it could be stopped, but it cannot. Therefore, it’s time to ask a number of uncomfortable questions. They’ll be answered one way or another, with us or without.
Podcast: Is it a purge or a plan? Or both!
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I get into it with Noah Rothman on whether the president’s behavior toward his attorney general and the new White House communications director’s conduct toward the White House chief of staff constitute a “plan” of action or whether we are just living through nihilistic chaos. Where does Abe Greenwald come out? You’ll have to give a listen.
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