Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Google Fined $2.7 Billion In EU Anti-Trust Suit

This article describes how Google's search engine was misused in the EU.  I used to enjoy using Google's search engine because it provided me with useful sites.  It is less useful to me now because search results are often dominated by ads which are triggered by the search.  Since Google is the dominant search engine it can make deals with advertisers which give them a favored position is searches.  The EU calls that an abuse of monopoly power.  Google is not alone in this kind of practice.  It was possible to get useful information from sites like Webmd and the Mayo Clinic.  Now they are dominated by ads which offer remedies for the health issue in one's search.  Useful information on these sites has been reduced in favor of generating advertising revenue.  Some of the sites even give a satisfaction rating to advertised remedies.  My guess is that favored positions are sold and not earned.

Trump's America First Agenda Has Hurt Him And US Global Reputation

It is not surprising that Donald Trump's "America First" election campaign has been harmful of our reputation in most of the world.  The US reputation improved only in two countries.  Russia and Israel like us better under Trump.  In the rest of the world, according the Pew survey,  the US reputation has crashed along with Donald Trump's rise to the presidency.  The reputation of the US also suffered during the Bush administration.  The Iraq war, and the lies contrived by the Bush administration to build support for the way were very damaging.  It took eight years of Bush to damage the US image abroad.  It took only six months of Trump to produce a similar result.

Trump supporters might argue that our reputation abroad does not matter.  I guess that depends upon whether the moral and political values that were built up over 70 years are considered to be important to our welfare.  No business would be happy with a destruction of its image.  Moreover,  Trump's reputation will continue to deteriorate over the next 3.5 years.  Few will follow his leadership.  Germany and other nations will pick up the slack produced by Donald Trump.  He is not only disliked; he is regarded as unqualified for the job that he holds.  The statistics in the Pew survey should be alarming to all of us.  Our reputation recovered under Obama after the disaster of George Bush.  It did take long for Trump to destroy the reputation built up under Obama.  We may not be as luck next time.  Trump will ignore this study and place the blame on Obama and the Democratic Party for out lost prestige.  That is one of his big problems.  He never accepts blame for anything.  That is why he never learns from his mistakes.  The only thing that matters to Trump is winning.  That is why he is pushing as hard as he can to sell a healthcare bill that violates all of his campaign promises and is terrible for our society.  He wants a win no matter what it costs.  If he does not get a win, he will blame others for its defeat.  His base will applaud his courage and his energy.  Many of them don't know how the bill will affect them.

David Brooks Divorces Conservatism From Republicanism

David Brooks believes in some form of conservatism which is hard to define.  However, he believes that it includes some vision of a desirable society.  Government plays a role in that society.  It organizes itself around that vision.  For most of his career David Brooks has been an opinion leader in the Republican Party.  He now understands that Republicanism is not Conservatism.  The Republican Party is only concerned about governing but it is not guided by a vision of a conservative society.

Brooks has come to the realization that there is a structural flaw in modern capitalism.  The structural flaw has led to rising inequality which is tearing society apart. Donald Trump was elected to remedy the problem of rising inequality.  He seems to have given up on the promises that he made to his supporters.  He is the leader of a political party that has no social vision.  It is wedded to a system of governance which accepts rising inequality and social decay.  There are two conflicting governing divisions in the Republican Party which are somewhat aligned.  One group is intent upon making the tax system less progressive and lowering the level of taxation.  That plays well with those who want to diminish the role of government in society.  Libertarians are happy with lower taxes because it blends in with their idea of a very limited government.  The internal debate within the Republican Party over the healthcare bill reflects that division.  Moderate Republicans and libertarians can't agree on the extent of government involvement in the healthcare system.  They only seem to agree on eliminating the progressive tax in Obamacare.  In either case,  the GOP bill is a social disaster.  It exacerbates the problem of rising income inequality.

Brooks attended a conference in Aspen that included representatives from the leading conservative think tanks.  Brooks is more comfortable around conservative intellectuals because he believes that they share a vision of conservative society.  They recognize the structural flaw in modern capitalism and they have come to accept income redistribution as one of the remedies.  It is a conservative view of income redistribution that is decentralized and incorporates the market mechanism in its solutions.  They would fix the healthcare system by using market mechanisms to redistribute income those who cannot afford to purchase healthcare.  They have a vision of a consumer driven healthcare system that would offer near universal coverage,  They would probably reject the best liberal inspired version of healthcare which would be a single payer system like Medicare for everyone that prevails in Canada.  That system could solve two major problems in our healthcare system.  Healthcare costs continue to rise faster than general inflation and faster than GDP.  Conservative intellectuals can't really give up on the idea that healthcare is a commodity that responds well to market mechanisms.  Kenneth Arrow, who is regarded as one of our greatest economists destroyed that idea many years ago,  Conservatives have not come to grips with Arrow's argument.  Consumers with limited funds can't purchase many desirable commodities which everyone would like.  Those who are unable to afford insurance, or other means of obtaining healthcare,  will get sick and die without access to healthcare. We accept the idea that everyone cannot own a Mercedes.  Are we ready to accept that low income citizens in the world's richest nation should be left to get sick and die?

Tom Price, who Trump appointed to fix our healthcare system, presented at the Aspen conference.  According to Brooks he was a flop.  He had no real ideas and no vision of a better society.  He spent most of his time trying the sell the Republican healthcare bill.  Price is an example of the problem that Brooks would like to change.  He would like more involvement by conservative intellectuals in government who share a social vision.  What we have instead is Republican Party selling a healthcare bill that has no vision of how it relates to a social vision which Brooks would like to see in our government.  I would go a step further than Brooks.  Our government is being led by individuals who have no social vision but also reject intellectuals and the need for new ideas.

I always learn a lot by reading the comments that follow many of the op-eds written by David Brooks.  There are a lot of smart people who read his articles and they raise good questions.  I also read articles in the Washington Post written by smart people who raise good questions.  The comments that appear after good articles in the Washington Post are nowhere near the comments that follow a typical article Brooks article in the NYT.  It seems like the Post attracts a lot of readers who have no interest in debating ideas.  Many seem to read them as trolls who want to expel liberal ideas from public discussion.  That probably reflects the location of the Post that is also a local paper in an area which has little interest in intellectual debate.

Monday, June 26, 2017

What Is Wrong With US Democracy?

Donald Trump's rise to the presidency has led many people to examine their views about how democracy really works and what can be done to move closer to the ideal that our founders had in mind.  This interview with two political scientists suggests that Donald Trump was not an anomaly.  Democratic elections are essentially battles between constituencies and identities formed within those constituencies. It is shaped by political elites who provide the issues to which voters respond. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton played the same game and Trump eked out a razor thin majority in swing states that produced the unexpected result.  Donald Trump won the election but his lack of government experience, among other things, has produced unusual consequences.  It should not make us cynical about democracy; instead, it should encourage us to better understand how it really works and to create more balance between constituencies, and political elites, than presently exists in our system.  Winston Churchill defended democracy by claiming that it was the least bad system of governance.  Our founders also understood the many problems that any form of democracy would have to overcome.  They attempted to create institutions that protect the system from an egregious failure.  The move from monarchy to democracy has been difficult but it is not the kind of democracy that is presented in Fourth of July speeches.  The better we understand the problems that were well understood by out founders, and how it is working today, the more able we will be to bring it closer to our ideals.  The political scientists interviewed in this article helped me to better understand what needs to be done to make the real system work better.

How Is Our Former EXXON CEO Doing As Secretary Of State?

I recently had a conversation with a woman who started as an intern in the State Department and has worked her way up to an important position in the department.  When I asked her how things were going under Tillerson she shook her head and unloaded her views on his performance. I had wondered about how a powerful CEO, with global experience, would adapt to his new role. Her views were similar to those expressed in this article.

The conservative Heritage Foundation recommended Tillerson for the job, and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner said that Tillerson was "in another league" compared to other candidates that he had interviewed.  Tillerson also fit well into Trump's preference for business experience over government experience.  It also must have pleased him to have the CEO of one of the world's largest corporations work under him.  Trump's business experience is minor league compared to Tillerson's.  Unfortunately, it looks like Tillerson was a bad choice for the job.  His experience as a powerful CEO did not prepare him well for his position of Secretary of State.

Tillerson must have been good at working with the Board at Exxon which appointed him as CEO, and which was responsible for monitoring his performance.  It turns out that he not been good at managing his Board in the White House.  Jared Kushner has played a more important role than Tillerson in the Mid-East.  Kushner picked the right horse in Saudi Arabia and Tillerson did not want the government to get between Saudi Arabia and Qatar during its current dispute over Qatar's role in supporting terrorism.  Trump, as Chairman of Tillerson's Board, has publically sided with Saudi Arabia along with other Board members like Kushner and Bannon who operate out of the White House.

Tillerson has not only lost the support of his Board in the White House,  he seems to have been missing-in-action in the State Department.  One of his priorities has been to reduce the head count in the State Department and cut costs.  That is a popular move by new CEO's in business.  They often take steps to cut costs and improve profits.  Tillerson's cost cutting operation, taken before he had gained experience with his new organization, has not been well received internally or externally.  It has also badly harmed the moral of professionals in State who are rarely consulted prior to Tillerson's decisions in areas where he has no experience.  He seems to have isolated himself in his office along with a small team of his admirers.

The Washington Post's report card for Tillerson does not auger well for him.  Whether we like it or not the Washington Post provides critical information about government performance.  Tillerson seems to have also failed to establish a relationship with reporters who can make or break political leaders in Washington.  When Tillerson retired from EXXON he was rewarded by his Board with a package typical of those received by retiring lords of major corporations.  Its unlikely that his retirement from his current job will be a pleasant experience.  His inability to manage his Board in the White House will eventually end his brief experiment in government.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Koch Network Claims That Senate Health Bill Is Not Conservative Enough

The Koch Brothers spend tens of millions fund Republican campaigns through its American's for Prosperity organization.  They are libertarians who want to minimize the role of government in society.  They have many supporters in the House and quite a few in the Senate.  Most of the criticism about the Senate health bill is that it cuts benefits and access to healthcare for millions of needy Americans.  The Koch Brothers and their minions in Congress call the Senate bill Obamacare Light.  Instead of shrinking Medicaid and other government entitlements they would prefer to eliminate them.  The Senate has to navigate a path between Koch's minions and more moderate Senators who prefer a more generous health bill.  The Koch Brothers may be more successful at sinking the bill than moderate Republican senators.   

Its rather amazing how a single family with billions to spend purchasing politicians  and opinion makers in conservative "think tanks" can have such a major impact on our government. This is not the kind if democracy our founders had in mind.  We don't need much help from Putin to weaken our democracy.  Hierarchy based on wealth and democracy are antithetical to each other.

Trump's Vice President Sells A Non-Church Goer To Evangelical Christians

Evangelical Christians are a big part of the Republican base.  Donald Trump has no history of church attendance and many of his values are consistent with the focus on family values that plays a major role with evangelicals.  Mike Pence did his duty as a loyal VP and told this group of evangelicals that Trump was on their team.  The President has been married three times and he has a long history of womanizing.  That might have been a hard sell for Pence but he knows all of the tricks of the trade.  His political career was based upon support from evangelicals.  He may be one of them but selling Donald Trump to them should be a challenge.  Pence was up to the challenge.