Monday, September 25, 2023
FOR DECADES Americans have been moving to beautiful places that are vulnerable to extreme weather. Florida, once a swampy frontier, is now America’s third-most populous state. It is also the state most often hit by hurricanes. By 2015, the Atlantic and Gulf coasts boasted more than $13trn of real estate. Look West and the story is similar. Homes are proliferating in the wildland-urban interface, where nature and development anxiously coexist and wildfire season seems never to end.
It is climate change that makes extreme weather more common. But the financial cost of storms and fires depends, more than anything else, on how many homes people choose to build in risky places. After adjusting for inflation, there have been more billion-dollar disasters so far in 2023 than any year since America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping records. Losses as a proportion of GDP have kept stable over the past four decades. But there are big local exceptions: last year hurricane damage cost Florida between 7.5% and 10% of the state’s GDP.
Those who enjoy the benefits of living in high-risk areas (such as a majestic ocean view) should shoulder the costs. However, both federal and state governments ensure that they do not, by subsidising or suppressing property insurance rates in such places. This has encouraged reckless building. A new report from the First Street Foundation, a non-profit research group, finds that if proper account is taken of climate risk, nearly a quarter of all properties in the continental United States are overvalued. These 39m properties represent a climate-insurance bubble inflated by government.
Private insurers burned by huge payouts after disasters are abandoning risky markets such as Florida and California. Homeowners are turning to state-backed insurers of last resort, which offer less coverage for a higher price. When these plans cannot cover claims, taxpayers are often left with the bill. As climate change continues, the uninsurable parts of America will only grow.
At the federal level the National Flood Insurance Programme, which offers subsidised flood insurance to homeowners in hazardous places, is drowning in debt. America’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the programme, is in the process of raising rates to keep it solvent. But property-owners are rebelling by cancelling their policies, and the politicians who represent them are threatening to intervene.
Such intransigence is bipartisan. State and national politicians, Democrats and Republicans, prefer to keep rates artificially low, constituents happy and their tax bases intact. This is short-sighted. So long as disaster risk is underpriced, people will take too much of it. And it is unclear how long taxpayers who live in comparatively safe places will be happy to subsidise insurance for those who don’t, especially when the subsidy-guzzlers are rich. . . . . Taxpayers should not be helping the Real Housewives of Miami build seaside castles.
Instead, policymakers should allow private insurers to set actuarially sound rates, so they can keep writing coverage. Realistic premiums would deter reckless new construction. They would also hurt existing homeowners, so politicians would probably have to keep offering government flood insurance, at least temporarily, to those who cannot afford anything else.
Eventually, though, some Americans will need to move to keep safe from rising seas, roaring floods and fast-encroaching flames. The government should ease the transition: for example, FEMA could offer buyouts to homeowners who cannot afford their insurance. But make no mistake: the longer politicians subsidise building in dangerous places, the worse the pain will be, and the bigger the final bill.
Sunday, September 24, 2023
To understand why Donald Trump is once again skipping a Republican presidential debate, realize that the conventional way of looking at the GOP’s nomination contest has things largely backward. Trump’s standing in the polls is less about his strength than about the weakness of the rest of the field — and the traditional Republican Party.
Trump wants his foes to stay weak. By not showing up, he reduces them to squabbling bit players trying to bring each other down while the major contenders offer pale imitations of his own message and values.
Republican voters once open to someone other than the former president are concluding that if they’re going to get Trumpism, they might as well go with the guy who invented it. And they’re getting little useful advice from party leaders who — as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) told his biographer McKay Coppins — see Trump as a disaster but are too timid to say so publicly.
It didn’t have to be like this, because the strength of Trump’s lock on the party is vastly exaggerated.
Sure, Trump has an unshakable base, those who would stick with him if he were indicted a dozen more times. But that hard core accounts for no more than about 35 percent of the Republican primary electorate. There really is (or was) room for someone else to break through.
But not one of them has inspired real excitement, and the politician who once seemed best placed to take Trump on, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has had a miserable year.
As a result, Trump has been able to combine his base with a fair share of the largest group of Republicans: those with a more or less positive view of the former president but willing to support someone else.
Not so long ago, such Republicans were flocking to others, particularly DeSantis. Trump seemed anything but inevitable at the beginning of 2023. Many in the party blamed him (and the candidates he backed) for its disappointing showing in the 2022 midterms.
A mid-January poll for the Bulwark by North Star Opinion Research and GOP pollster Whit Ayres found that when Republicans were offered a choice among DeSantis, Trump and “another candidate,” 44 percent picked DeSantis to 28 percent for Trump and 10 percent for the unnamed alternative. When the other potential GOP candidates were listed by name, DeSantis led Trump by 39 percent to 28 percent.
Other polling early in the year generally showed Trump ahead, but mostly not by his currently prohibitive margin.
The sad news for the country is that Republicans let a real chance to end Trump’s career slip away. The opportunity may not come around again. Critics of the GOP enjoy observing that the more Trump is indicted, the more Republican voters flock to him. The timelines of his growing lead and his expanding list of felony counts do overlap, but there are better explanations for his comeback.
The most obvious is that his primary foes have plainly failed to impress voters. At least as important, they and Trump’s (often secret) party critics were unwilling to risk enraging him and his supporters. So they held back from throwing knockout punches when Trump was on the ropes. That’s no way to beat a brawler who’ll do anything to win.
Congressional leaders also seem to have calculated that their hopes of keeping their narrow House majority and winning back the Senate depend on voters whom Trump can draw to the polls — and traditional conservatives cannot. Trump is rubbing that in by forgoing the Wednesday debate in favor of a trip to Michigan, where he’ll pretend to be a friend of the state’s autoworkers. He was, in fact, a very antilabor president, but he sure knows how to play roles on TV.
The party’s paralyzing Trump dependency has only grown with its ongoing loss of middle-of-the-road suburban voters, small-c conservatives temperamentally who are skeptical of a contemporary Big-C Conservatism increasingly shaped by the Far Right.
The journey of suburban Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia is a microcosm of the GOP’s troubles. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, the paragon of old-style moderate conservatism, won 60 percent of the county’s vote, carrying Pennsylvania and the presidential election. In 2020, Trump got just over 36 percent, losing the state and the presidency.
In the short term, Republican strategists see no path to rebuilding a more moderate coalition. The party’s primary electorate is concluding that in a closely divided country, Trump is about as electable as any of his less-than-stellar rivals. The candidates who gather on Wednesday at the Reagan Library need to grasp that they’re on the verge of allowing the most dangerous man in American politics one more shot at power.
Saturday, September 23, 2023
“Axis Sally” was the generic name for women with husky voices and good English who read German and Italian propaganda on the radio during World War II. Like the Japanese women who became collectively known as “Tokyo Rose,” they were trying to reach American soldiers, hoping to demoralize them by telling them their casualties were high, their commanders were bad, and their cause was lost. “A lousy night it sure is,” Axis Sally said on one 1944 broadcast: “You poor, silly, dumb lambs, well on your way to be slaughtered.”
Tucker Carlson, who also repeats the propaganda of foreign dictators while speaking English, doesn’t have anything like the historical significance of Axis Sally or Tokyo Rose, though his level of credibility is similar. This is a man who famously wrote texts about his loathing of Donald Trump, even while praising the then-president in public; recently, the former Fox News host kept a straight face while interviewing a convicted fraudster who claimed to have smoked crack and had sex with Barack Obama. But when Carlson speaks on behalf of Viktor Orbán or Vladimir Putin, his words are repeated in Hungary and Russia, where they do have resonance: Look, a prominent American journalist supports us. I don’t know what Carlson’s motivation is—he did not respond to a request for comment—but his words also circulate in the far-right American echo chamber, where they are sometimes repeated by Republican presidential candidates, so unfortunately they require some explanation.
Carlson’s hatred of American institutions, and of many Americans, is the starting point for many of his diatribes. Recently, for instance, he appeared at an event in Budapest, organized by a Hungarian-government-funded organization, where he called the U.S. ambassador to that nation a “creep,” said he was “embarrassed that I share a country of birth with a villain like this,” and apologized for American foreign policy in Hungary.
But what is American foreign policy in Hungary? I asked the ambassador, David Pressman, to describe it to me. Pressman, who is gay, told me that when he first arrived in Budapest, his counterparts smirked at him during their meetings and asked if he wanted to talk about gay rights or other progressive causes. No, he told them. He wanted to talk about Russian and Chinese espionage and influence operations in Hungary, which are considerable.
Some examples: The most important Russian investment in Hungary is a nuclear-power plant whose financing is kept secret by law, presumably because the ruling party doesn’t want to reveal who is benefiting. Chinese interests are also financing a distinctly untransparent railway project in Hungary, have made an opaque investment in an environmentally unfriendly battery-manufacturing plant, and, a couple of years ago, with the help of the Hungarian government, tried to open a university in Budapest too. In 2019, Hungarian government officials also arranged for the Russian-controlled International Investment Bank, an institution set up in 1970 by the Soviet Union and its satellite states, to move its headquarters to Budapest, even throwing in a 10-million-euro subsidy as encouragement.
[T]he Hungarian deal with the “Russian spy bank,” as it is known in Budapest (it was once described by a group of U.S. senators as “an arm of the Russian secret service”), also freed the bank from Hungarian financial supervision, exempted it from taxes, and allowed bank employees to have diplomatic status and immunity in Hungary, an arrangement that could in theory help Russian spies enter the country and from there the rest of the European Union.
Orbán likes to portray himself as a leader who cannot be influenced, a man tough and immovable, in fact he often gives in at the last minute—he is famous in the European Union for doing so. But he needs to tell a different story to his voters about what happened. The invitation to the disgraced former Fox News pundit does that: While in Budapest, Carlson channeled Orbán’s anger and dislike of the United States and its ambassador, while studiously avoiding the real reasons for what is indeed an extremely poor moment for American-Hungarian relations.
During his comments, and during his interview with Orbán, both broadcast on his social media, Carlson stayed well away from banks and Russian spies. He didn’t mention Hungary’s refusal to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership, or Hungary’s repeated vetoes of European sanctions against Russia. Instead, he denounced the United States for “the imposition of boutique sexual politics” on Hungary. Officials in the Biden administration, Carlson claimed, “hate Hungary not because of what it’s done but because of what it is. It’s a Christian country, and they hate that.”
This rant was based on a false premise, for there is no U.S. war on Christianity in Hungary. If American officials are angry at Hungary, that’s not because of what it is, but because of what it’s done. Once again: The conflict between Washington and Budapest over the past several years is about Hungarian corruption, especially corruption in the ruling Fidesz party, and Hungary’s deep ties to other autocracies.
Carlson is useful to Orbán because his words can help hide Orbán’s agenda at home—look, a prominent American journalist supports us—and abroad. By pretending that this is a culture war rather than a conflict over money and espionage, Carlson helps Orbán escape the consequences of his actions.
Vladimir Putin has been directing his citizens away from reality and toward imaginary culture wars for more than a decade. In September 2022, when the Russian president held a ceremony to mark his illegal annexation of southern and eastern Ukraine, he did not speak of the people he is torturing or holding in concentration camps, the children he has kidnapped and deported to Russia, or even the tens of thousands of Russian soldiers who have died in his unnecessary war. Instead, he used the occasion to talk about the “satanic” West, claim he was defending Russia from “perversions that lead to degradation and extinction,” and again replace the real war, in which real people are killing and being killed, with a fictional culture war that exists in his head.
Carlson frequently uses Russian propaganda lines too, promoting fake stories . . . . You can see why. The real world is full of difficult, hard-to-explain problems; even the best solutions might require difficult trade-offs. Once, Americans did have at least a few politicians who nevertheless sought to find these solutions, and our political system seemed to allow us to have arguments about them. Authoritarians, by contrast, seek power in order to hide the problems, steal money, arrange favors for their friends, and manipulate the political system so that they can’t ever lose power. That’s what Putin did, and that’s what Orbán does too. Carlson is simply the American face, and the English-speaking voice, of that confidence trick.