Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The averted shutdown and Trump's border wall cave-in

It looks like we won't have that government shutdown after all.  On Monday, I wrote about the internal dynamics of Congress and the possibility of a shutdown, and it is still possible that Ryan won't find a way to keep the entire GOP together, but Trump has dropped his demand for a big chunk of funding for the border wall.  You know, the one that Mexico will pay for...

The important point here is that Trump caved.  This is different from the issue of branding China a currency manipulator.  That was a flip-flop.  (He does that a lot).  There wasn't a negotiation.  There wasn't an exchange of demands.  He just said he was going to do a thing, and didn't.  The border wall funding issue was a demand in a negotiation.  He demanded money for a border wall, then admitted he wouldn't veto a spending bill without the money.  That's a cave.  Not the same.  The latter is far more dangerous to his credibility, and it brings me back to an issue that I addressed last summer in the "Political science & craziness" series.

Trump cares primarily about perceptions of strength, and so is committed to carrying out threats to his own detriment.  That should give his threats more credibility than a sane actor, and give him some bargaining leverage, if played right.  The border wall funding issue, though, brings us to the issue I addressed in Part V of the series-- what happens when you demand something that another actor simply cannot provide.  The funding that Trump was demanding here was a nonstarter, but shutting down the government in his first 100 days would be dumb even by Trumpian standards.  Would Trump be smart enough to back away?

I didn't know if he would be.  He was.  Give Trump credit here for recognizing when he needed to cave.  There was no way this spending bill would get through the Senate in particular with that border wall funding, and Trump couldn't handle a shutdown.  He was going to lose.  Caving must have killed him, given how much he hates looking weak.  And he looks very very very weak.


Because he is weak.  He is just smart enough to recognize that he doesn't hold the cards right now.  This is an unfulfillable campaign promise coming back to bite him.  For those scared that Trump will do something truly, irrationally stupid, though (like me), this is actually a sign that someone is pushing him to do the smart thing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Brexit, Trump... Le Pen? What's the deal?

Britain voted to leave the EU.  Donald Trump won.  Another Le Pen made it to a run-off election in France.  One can more easily understand the rise of some of the right-wing nationalist movements in Greece that have developed in response to the economic conditions there, but the US, Britain and France?  One might be tempted, at this point, to think that there is something systematic going on here.  I thought I might run through some possibilities.

1)  Contagion.  Nice word, right?  The surprise victory of Brexit emboldens right-wing nationalist movements elsewhere, and helps their cause across borders.  Trump, for example, was openly supportive of Brexit, and the protectionist element of his campaign found common cause with the Brexiters.  Trump then wins.  Trump invited Le Pen to Trump Tower, and pretty much endorsed her.  These events happen in sequence, so perhaps there is a causal link.  Perhaps.  Evidence?  Not much since we haven't seen similar sequences in the past.  Democracy, after all, isn't very old, in historical terms, nor is the capacity for cross-national contagion, which requires the very kind of globalism that these hypocritical nitwits abhor.

2)  Some kind of international moment, whatever that means.  Somethin' in the water, or somethin' like that.  Notice how vague I'm being.  There is something about global economic or political conditions affecting Euro-American countries helping each of these movements.  The problem with this explanation is that the obvious answer just isn't true.  The claim of each of these movements is that immigration and global trade are just screwing over the native-born populations of the most economically developed countries.  Now, if you know anything about economics, you know that's bullshit and that this is all just racism with veils that range from thin to monomolecular, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something about the perception of immigration, globally at the moment, driving these parties and movements.  That's still hard to test.  At least survey data can help us here, cross-nationally.

3)  Coincidence.  A Republican was due to win our general election because a Democrat won the last two.  Even so, Trump should have lost because he's a rapist who lusts after his own daughter, and whom voters knew to be incompetent by a 2-1 margin going into the voting booth.  Why did they elect him?  James Comey, Director of the FBI, violated DoJ policy by intervening in the election two weeks before voting with some bullshit about how maybe he might indict Clinton even though there was no chance that he would.  That threw things off, even before we talk about Vladimir Putin.  Brexit was very close.  Le Pen?  She hasn't even won yet.  She only made the run-off.  Her dad, Adolph, did that once too, and the country freaked out so much that he got crushed, as she probably will too.  A fellow neo-Nazi candidate ran in the Netherlands, and everyone said not to count him out because "remember Trump and Brexit!" and he lost, just like the polls said.  Maybe this is nothing.

What's going on?  We don't know.

Tuesday music: If you only listen to American music, you just suck

Given my obsession with jazz and the recent... news from France, a Django Reinhardt clip would seem to be in order, but Django was actually originally Belgian, although the French could never really accept Gypsies as truly French anyway.  (Bigotry takes many forms).  Lagrene made his early career in the Reinhardt tradition anyway.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A government shutdown?!

This is another post that I shouldn't have to write, yet here I am.  Brief shutdowns, in which Congress misses a deadline by a day aren't all that rare, in historic terms.  However, we have only had a couple of extended shutdowns in recent decades:  1995 and 2013.  Are we really about to have another?  During unified government?  Really?

A quick primer.  A shutdown, if brief, is no big deal.  It becomes a big deal if it drags on.  If Congress doesn't appropriate money to an agency, it runs out of money.  It can't pay employees, so employees have to be furloughed, beginning with the least-essential employees.  As time passes, more and more essential services get cut.  In 1995, Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) thought that a government shutdown would be a great tool to make the point that government services were pointless anyway, so he wandered around saying, "the government's shut down, do you miss it yet?"  Eventually, they did.  If you need a passport and can't get it, you miss the government, as an example.  In 1995, Republicans, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, shut down the government with a demand that Clinton agree to cut social spending, particularly on healthcare.  Clinton refused.  Republicans took the blame and caved.  In 2013, Republicans, pressured by Ted Cruz and against the advice of John Boehner (who led a failed attempt to topple Newt Gingrich in the summer of 1997 for Newt's idiotic "leadership"), shut down the government demanding that Obama agree to cuts in healthcare spending.  Obama refused.  Republicans took the blame and caved.  "Rarely is the question asked: is our Republicans learning?"

OK, see the pattern in 1995 and 2013?  Congress and a president of opposing parties with different preferences over spending.  Right now, we have Congress and a president of the same party.  The point of a standoff is you hope to win by having the public blame the other party.  You can't blame the other party when the other party has no power.  This brings us back to what we have been seeing over, and over, and over again.  The internecine warfare within the Republican Party, and the struggle to prove that I'm more conservative than you are, which was really what the 2013 shutdown was about.  When Ted Cruz pushed the shutdown, he really did know it would fail.  The point was to call John Boehner a sellout when Boehner was forced to cave.

Right now, the Republican Party has to decide whether or not to shut down the government.  If it does, the question is not which party takes the blame, but which faction within the party takes the blame.  Here's the thing.  The establishment faction-- the Paul Ryan faction-- is so afraid of the consequences of a shutdown that they just need to figure out how to cave.  This brings us back to a reference I have made a few times:  Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins' Legislative Leviathan.  Short version:  party leaders structure the agenda in such a way as to unify the party around bills that give them a good brand name.  Shutdowns hurt the national brand, and that's what Paul Ryan can't allow.  Whatever internal fights he has to lose, he'll lose, just like Boehner did.  Otherwise, the party loses.  That's why he didn't want the job in the first place.

Being Speaker right now sucks.

And that's before we talk about how Mexico was supposed to pay for that wall, which no intelligent person ever believed...

Monday morning blues: If you don't love blues, you hate America

The original version is from "Which Way To Here" (not currently up on youtube).  Incidentally, Anders Osborne was born in Sweden, but he's a US citizen.  He moved to New Orleans (that should be obvious from the sound of the music) long ago.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Assorted comments regarding the March for Science


I like science.  A bunch of thoughts:

1)  Several months ago, the faculty at Case Western Reserve University received an email from our University President instructing us to download any data sets containing sensitive data from federal databases in case the government were to decide to cut off access.  She meant mostly climate data because, well, Trump and his climate bullshit.  Please refer to the following Onion article:  "Fearful Americans Stockpiling Facts Before Federal Government Comes To Take Them Away."  I'm not fucking kidding you.  I got that email from my University President.  I was seriously told to stockpile my facts.  The Onion is practically a real newspaper at this point.

2)  Science is a method, not a subject.  This is a line that some of my students probably get sick of hearing from me, but it has several implications.  First, it is a defense of political science as a science.  The application of the scientific method to questions about politics.  That kind of matters to me.  We get funding through NSF, and some asshole occasionally comes along to try to cut that off, as former Senator Tom Coburn did a few years ago.  It would be nice if the people marching didn't sneer at the social sciences.  I kinda suspect that some of them probably do.  FUCK THEM.  To paraphrase an old poem, first they came for political science, and I did not speak out because I was not a political scientist...

3)  Next implication of the observation that science is a method, not a subject.  It is not, actually, knowledge, despite the funny sign above, and today's music clip.  It is not a body of findings.  Remember the humble phlogiston.  You probably don't.  The phlogiston was the particle that was supposedly lost by wood, metal, paper, etc. in the process of either rusting or burning.  Problem:  Antoine Lavoisier weighed the metal after it rusted and found that it got heavier, not lighter when it rusted.  It wasn't losing phlogistons.  But, phlogiston theory was pretty prominent until Lavoisier came along and decided to weigh the damned metal.  Something you think is true right now is a phlogiston.  A piece of rusted metal that hasn't been weighed yet.  The field of psychology is going through a replication crisis...

4)  What are the critical aspects of that method?  Here's the kicker for most people:  science is evidence-based, and intrinsically skeptical.  You must reject a claim in the absence of evidence.  Belief without evidence is a violation of science.  There are... lots of ways that this society venerates belief without evidence.  Do you believe without evidence?  Do you say "yay science!" and then compartmentalize?

5)  While lefties can be sanctimonious about the Clinton versus Trump comparison with regard to science, there are some anti-science leanings on the left.  They just aren't as prominent, and the divisions aren't as cleanly partisan.  But the left doesn't get off scot-free here.  Jill Fucking Stein.  An anti-vaccination doctor.


[pausing for moment to control temper]


I occasionally teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  Yes, really.  Much of the class is devoted to bashing Andrew Fucking Wakefield, the fraud doctor who murdered people with bullshit by faking data in a bullshit study that claimed that vaccines caused autism.  The study was retracted, and his license was revoked, but a lot of people bought into that shit.  And children died.  And it played into certain lefties' leanings, particularly if they have certain new age, hippy-dippy bullshit beliefs about medicine.  This is a mere sample, but a demonstration of how there are some anti-science factions among the left.  You'll find others if you wander the isles of Whole Paycheck.

6)  And while I'm at it, at some point soon, I'll address the shit happening at Berkeley, where I got my Ph.D.  Another recent Onion gem:  "Berkeley Campus on Lockdown After Loose Pages From 'Wall Street Journal' Found On Park Bench.'"  What elevates science is that those of us who use the scientific method change our interpretations of the world in response to evidence.  That requires reading and thinking about the world from different perspectives.  With respect to climate change, the science is pretty much in on that, and the burden of evidence for those denying conventional science is so high that I'm just not paying much attention to them anymore.  Whether the formerly-Republican position of cap-and-trade is an appropriate response, or simply dumping money into research on carbon capture, or something else is an open and ideological question, but when someone says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, they don't deserve to have their opinions on the matter heard out.

Economics, though, is a heavily contested discipline, and if you aren't paying attention to people who disagree with you, then you run the risk of being the last advocate of phlogiston theory.  To be fair to Berkeley, the protests tend to be more about race issues than economics, to the degree that they are separable (which is another matter...), but if you are going to position yourself as a defender of science, then you need to be very careful about when you stop listening to people.

I think you are pretty safe not listening to Donald Trump.  Unfortunately, I have to.  It's my job.  Sometimes, I hate my job.  Cable news sucks.  Wall Street Journal?  You kind of need to pay attention to them.  Of course, I gave Berkeley a hard time for bothering to invite future NAMBLA President Milo Hasbeen, which was one of the incidents that sparked protest, along with giving the protesters a hard time.  Still, be very careful about deciding who doesn't get to be heard anymore.  Science requires never being certain that you are right, and that means leaving open the possibility that even the most idiotic-sounding person might be right.

Unless that person is Trump.

Sunday music: If you don't love bluegrass, you hate America