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Newsletter 11-27-2020

Colin Powers
Colin Powers

Hi everyone. Thanks for subscribing. If you have the means, please consider becoming a paying member. If you have the inclination, please pass this newsletter around to others who might enjoy the read. Now, onto this week's edition of No Craic, Mad Craic, and Great Craic, which will be a bit briefer than usual due to the holiday and a big paper on Jordan eating up lots of my time.

No Craic

(1) Joe Biden is likely to appoint Brian Deese director of the National Economic Council (NEC). Deese is another Obama alum and currently an executive at BlackRock, the world's largest investment management firm (as of this summer, the value of the company's assets exceeded $7 trillion).

The lad's record while in government and while at BlackRock--an institution deeply embedded within Obamaworld and one with a penchant for hiring out-of-office government leaders from across the globe and then, umm, retaining healthy relations with them once they return to power--is none too good. While working at the White House the first time, Deese helped lead the charge on deficit reduction, entitlement reforms, and the much maligned Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, amongst other things. If he is indeed to take over one of the more influential institutional hubs in the Biden administration, the consequences are likely to prove severe, for reasons David Dayen lays out below:

The fact that Deese could take over the NEC is notable. The position was created for Robert Rubin in 1993 as a way to bring economic policy coordination inside the White House and weaken the power of the Council of Economic Advisers, a more independent body of economists. NEC directors have been key bottlenecks in past administrations, filtering what advice and information gets to the president. In 2009, NEC director Larry Summers made sure that President Obama was presented only with smaller options for stimulus, ruling out fiscal aid at the level necessary to fill the demand gap. Deese worked with Summers at NEC during Obama’s first term.

(2) Joe's foreign policy team is shaping up to be pretty disappointing as well. His prospective Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has received a full-throated endorsement from the Israeli power elite, which is always a great sign. Avril Haines, who will serve as director of National Intelligence, meanwhile, looks to be a stellar pick as well. Haines was the co-author of Obama's drone playbook and "was sometimes summoned in the middle of the night to weigh in on whether a suspected terrorist could be lawfully incinerated." She also backed Gina Haspel's appointment to run the CIA*, used to consult with Peter Thiel's Palantir (a shady data mining firm that was involved with Trump era mass surveillance and immigrant detention), and was most recently associated with WestExec Advisors, the advisory firm that Blinken and prospective Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy helped found.

*Haspel was a key cog in the Bush-era torture program. An American doctor and Naval reserve officer who evaluated one of her victims described the fruits of her labor thusly:

He (al-Nashiri) is irreversibly damaged by torture that was unusually cruel and designed to break him. In my over 20 years of experience treating torture victims from around the world, including Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. al-Nashiri presents as one of the most severely traumatized individuals I have ever seen.  

(3) Trump and his team is trying to push through a number of consequential "midnight regulations" in the the final fifty-odd days of his tenure. Most worryingly, they are looking to restore execution by firing squad, prevent pension managers from considering environmental and social impact in making their investments, and freeze wages for immigrant farmworkers on H-2A work visas. After complaining about his struggles in showering and flushing modern toilets back in 2019, one will be unsurprised to learn that Trump et al are looking to reduce efficiency standards for many household appliances as well.

(4) Georges Haddad has just published a deep dive into Lebanon's detention/prison system. The article makes for tough reading, detailing torture, enormous pre-trial deteainee populations, etc.

(5) Zambia defaulted on its (externally-owed) sovereign debt on November 13th. While the coronavirus is certainly implicated in this outcome, it is primarily the result of a collapse in commodities prices (for copper in particular), massive outflows of private wealth, and a bond sell-off back in 2018. On the second of these points, total profit remittances between 2010 and 2015--which are largely driven by transnational mining corporations moving moneys made in Zambia to one offshore locale or another--reached nearly 20% the country's GDP.

For those interested in the ins and outs of the country's current and financial accounts, Andrew Fischer's article here is wonderfully insightful.

Mad Craic

(6) A few weeks back, Thailand's Justice Minister and anti-narcotics agency were indulging in a victory lap after announcing that they had just seized 11.5 tons of ketamine (which has a street value of roughly $1 billion).  

European Photopress Agency

Alas, upon closer inspection, the product in question turned out to be trisodium phosphate, a common food additive/cleaning agent. Thems the breaks.

(7) The economy of scaling Everest has changed considerably in recent times. Per Adam Tooze, over the past ten years, Base Camp has hosted more hired sherpas than climbers:

There is probably something interesting to say about this--are rich people hiring like, fourteen sherpas a head to make their ascent now?--though I haven't figured it out yet. Will keep you posted.

(8) In his recently released memoir, John Bolton recounts how his plots to coup the Maduro government down in Venezuela went awry. According to his telling, the whole thing came undone due to some peak Trump whimsy.

More specifically, Bolton hones in on the occasion of Juan Guaido's visit to the White House. At some stage when all the parties were exchanging pleasantries, apparently DJT noticed that Guiado's wife wasn't wearing her wedding ring. From this, Trump inferred, rightly it should be said, that Guaido was, in fact, a coward incapable of commanding respect or devotion. Subsequently, he lost interest in the entire regime change escapade, and began referring to Guaido as the "Beto O'Rourke of Venezuela", a true chef's kiss if there ever was one.

In case you were wondering, yes, this is what an empire looks like in the dying embers.

Great Craic

(9) Scotland is to make all period products free, and is the first country to do so. That's pretty cool, so props to them.

Recent debates over student loan forgiveness in the US--debates populated by serious wonks arguing that a jubilee should be avoided on account of the fact that offering assistance to current debtors would be likely to upset those who had previously paid off their debts and/or by the fact that such a policy does not exclusively help the most desperate/chic minority group--has made me think about how this kind of policy might be received here. In the case of tampons and the like, I suspect someone at Brookings would call for circumspection, positing that though it might seem like a progressive idea, making these products gratis would actually be regressive because the savings generated for individuals and households would not help the post-menopause demo, a demo, they would go on to explain, that actually includes a disproportionate percentage of the country's poor due to the pauperization of American seniors. Having assiduously constructed this fraught logical edifice, the analyst would then close by stating that we ought shelve any initiative that might provide universally free period products and instead establish an earned income tax credit designated for women making less than $40,000, running a small business in a low income neighbhorhood, and having at least one period per month.  

(10) As Mark Pocan lays out in this interview with Jacobin, a wee pro-Labor caucus is gaining some momentum in Congress. Early days yet so excitement over this development would be premature. Nevertheless, it's something to keep an eye on.

Have a good weekend.


Colin Powers

Colin received his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 2020. He is a two-time Fulbright Fellow.