Discover more from Letters from an American
January 13, 2023 (Friday)
Yesterday, Russia released an American whom it had held since April in Kaliningrad, a slice of land held by Russia between Poland and Lithuania. Taylor Dudley had been backpacking in Europe and gone to Poland for a music festival. “At some point,” as accounts have it, he crossed into Kaliningrad and was picked up by Russian authorities. The State Department told reporters that it could not comment on the release because of a law giving control of information to the individual involved, rather than to the State Department.
Former New Mexico congress member and governor Bill Richardson, who now focuses on negotiating for the freedom of Americans detained overseas, said: “It is significant that despite the current environment between our two countries, the Russian authorities did the right thing by releasing Taylor today.”
In other good news, between 2012 and 2019 the rates of cervical cancer dropped an astonishing 65% among women in their early 20s. This is the first cohort to be eligible for vaccinations against the human papillomavirus (HPV). It appears that enough people have been vaccinated to begin to offer herd immunity, as rates have dropped among unvaccinated women as well.
New numbers yesterday show that falling gas prices and airfares meant falling inflation rates last month. Overall, inflation is slowing down significantly, although rising wages are among the factors still driving greater costs.
In other economic news, the federal budget deficit fell significantly in 2022. In 2021 it was $2.6 trillion; in 2022 it was $1.4 trillion. The deficit is the difference between how much the government takes in and how much it spends in a year; it is not the same thing as the debt (although it adds to the debt), which is the total amount the government owes. Right now the debt is above $31 trillion, and it has increased under both Republicans and Democrats (it grew by about 40% under Trump).
The Republicans now in charge of the House of Representatives seem to have spent their time so far voting on issues important to their base and taking “own-the-libs” stands on Twitter, but they are about to have to prove they can govern responsibly. Today, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that the United States will hit the debt ceiling on Thursday, January 19, and urged congressional leaders to increase the debt limit or suspend it altogether.
The so-called debt ceiling is a weird holdover from World War I when Congress got tired of specifying the instruments the Treasury should use to raise money and instead just said it could borrow money up to a certain amount. It is not about future spending; it is about paying bills Congress has already run up. But while Congress raises that limit consistently when a Republican president is in office, Republican congress members frequently threaten to send the country into default when a Democrat is in office in hopes of forcing cuts to policies they don’t like.
This is playing with fire. As Yellen wrote, “failure to meet the government’s obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability.”
McCarthy apparently promised the extremists in his conference that he would not agree to a clean debt ceiling increase and would instead demand cuts in spending before agreeing to any such increase.
Tonight, Jeff Stein, Leigh Ann Caldwell and Theodoric Meyer of the Washington Post reported that the House Republicans are preparing an emergency plan to breach the debt limit. It would enable the Treasury to continue to pay interest on the debt but not to pay other government debts owed to citizens, “things such as Medicaid, food safety inspections, border control and air traffic control, to name just a handful of thousands of programs.”
The government spends about $5 trillion a year, of which revenue covers about 80%. The idea is to cut off that other 20%, but the programs the Republicans are most likely to cut are ones that the American people like, want, and need. An obvious way to make up the difference between revenue and expenditures would be to increase revenue by stopping tax evasion and raising taxes on the very wealthy. This the Republicans are adamant they will not do, preferring instead to cut services.
Aside from being logistically impossible and politically suicidal, their attack on the public credit amounts to holding the federal government hostage, a tactic the country firmly rejected in 1866 when it wrote in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution that “[t]he validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”
Yellen told McCarthy that the Treasury can operate until June with the same sort of extraordinary measures it has used in the past. This includes, among other things, raiding government pension accounts, but those must be made whole again when this crisis is resolved.
The House Republicans will have to prove they can manage this crisis. So far, they are not off to a stellar start, grabbing headlines for, among other things, Representative George Santos (R-NY), who lied about most aspects of his biography during his campaign. Tonight, Nicholas Fandos of the New York Times broke the story that a number of Republicans knew of his lies but declined to challenge him. Fandos also noted that some of them wondered if Santos’s marriage to a woman when he is openly gay might have been “for immigration purposes,” which seems to be a delicate way to allude to a so-called “green card marriage,” which is a federal crime.
And yet, Santos seems to have found a home in the Republican Party by siding with the extremists: yesterday, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-FL) interviewed Santos on Trump ally Steve Bannon’s podcast. Gaetz defended Santos as a “fighter” who is being unfairly attacked.
Former president Trump is also in the news today as Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan fined two entities within the Trump Organization the maximum penalty of $1.6 million for a tax fraud scheme that led to their conviction on 17 counts last month. The big deal here is less the fine than that a conviction and penalty will make it hard for the corporation to get bank loans in the future. The Trump Organization says it will appeal.
Another lawsuit is also causing trouble for Trump. His sworn deposition in E. Jean Carroll’s rape suit against him has been released. It shows him saying that he doesn’t know Carroll, that he thinks she’s “mentally sick,” and that “she loved it.” Carroll has sued Trump under the New York’s Adult Survivors Act, which provides a yearlong window for lawsuits over sexual assault that had previously been outside the statute of limitations. Trump tried to argue that the law violates the state constitution by depriving him of his rights of due process. Today a judge dismissed his claim as “absurd.”
Trump’s ally Jair Bolsonaro continues to be in the news as well. Late today, Brazilian supreme court justice Alexandre de Moraes approved prosecutors’ request to investigate the former president for his role in inspiring the January 8 attack on Brazil’s presidential offices, congress, and supreme court. Bolsonaro spent much of his campaign and its aftermath claiming the election had been stolen, and he flew to Florida just before his term ended, leaving his successor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to take office without the traditional symbols of peaceful transfer of power.