Sunday, October 22, 2017

The possible release of JFK documents and belief in conspiracy theories

Supposedly, Trump will be releasing documents on the Kennedy assassination.  I was never one of those people who got obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, nor any particular conspiracy theory.  I am, however, fascinated by conspiracy theories in general.  So much so that I teach about the topic in one of my courses.  I teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  Yes, really.  Stop snickering.

Actually, snicker.  I think it's awesome, and my hero, George Carlin, would be proud.

The course is about faulty reasoning, poor applications of the scientific method, glitches in peer-review, and so forth.  Conspiracy theories fit right in there.  One of the articles I like to assign is an old piece by Ted Goertzel-- "Belief in Conspiracy Theories," from Political Psychology (December 1994, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 731-742).  I can't give you an un-gated link to it.  Sorry.

Quick synopsis:  most people believe in at least one conspiracy.  Even beyond JFK conspiracy theories, which 69% of respondents were open to accepting, people are prone to accepting some fascinating conspiracy theories, although the theories Goertzel tested were somewhat dated.  Education didn't even have the effect one might hope...

And let's be blunt about this.  Conspiracy theories have gotten worse since 1994.  Some conspiratorial ideas are partisan, like birtherism.  Fuck you, Trump!  Others are just weird and stupid, without being clearly partisan, like 9/11 conspiracy theories.  In the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, we asked respondents whether they thought the government "definitely knew," "probably knew," "probably didn't know," or, "definitely didn't know" in advance about 9/11.  10.5% of Strong Democrats and 10.4% of Strong Republicans (the opposing poles on a 7-point scale) said that the government "definitely knew" in advance about 9/11.  So, a tenth of each party's extremes were fuckwits about this in 2012.  Symmetry.  In contrast, 14.8% of Independents thought that the government "definitely knew" in advance.  As is often the case, it is the Independents who are most likely to be the dumbasses-- in this case, 14.8% likely to have their heads completely up their fucking asses.  Never believe the ridiculous myth that independents are the thoughtful, educated, informed citizenry, whereas the partisans are the dumbasses.  Other way around, and political scientists have known this for a long, long time.

Anyway, as I was saying, belief in conspiracy theories is quite widespread.  The basic problem with conspiracy theories, though, and the reason I don't tend to believe them, is that a conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest leak, I mean, link.  Sorry, Freudian slip there, but that's my point.  All it takes is one leak and the conspiracy comes apart.  The bigger the conspiracy, the harder it is to keep it under wraps.  "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."  You have probably heard some version of that before.  Tracing the origin of an aphorism is difficult, though, because of one of Polsby's Laws-- "famous sayings migrate into famous mouths."*  Maybe Ben Franklin said it first.  Maybe Twain, or... I don't know, and I don't care.  Some folklorist can worry about it.  It is Sunday morning, I haven't finished my coffee yet, and I'm on a rant again.  The point is that any conspiracy of significant size will have a blabbermouth.  Loose lips sink conspiratorial ships.  If it ain't sunk, it wasn't a conspiratorial ship.  How's that syllogism for ya'?

Example:  this ridiculous notion that there is a conspiracy among climatologists to fake the data on climate change.  Yeah, 'cuz that's how academia works.  We get bought off to go with the flow and say what everyone else is saying.  Have you read this fuckin' blog?  Granted, I'm a nobody, but the point is that nothing happens to me for dissenting.  Scratch that-- I was rewarded for dissenting.  I made my career by dissenting.  The whole fuckin' profession says "competitive elections are good and necessary for democracy."  I write a bunch of stuff saying no.  What happens?  A bunch of journals, and then Oxford University Press publish my stuff, Public Choice gives me the Gordon Tullock Award, and a top-tier national university gives me tenure.  Academia pushes back hard on dissent, just like every other human institution because humans are defective creatures.  But, ultimately, it rewards dissent because it must reward dissent.  That is how intellectual progress happens.  Science!

Conspiracies are fucking bullshit.  They don't work because someone's going to fucking blab.  All it takes is one fucking Henry Hill and unless you have some serious mafia shit going on to scare everyone, it won't work.  Totalitarianism has an uncertain future in places like North Korea, but here?  No fucking way can you keep every member of a conspiracy in line.  Someone will talk.  Whether it is an incompetent person who just can't keep a secret (hi, Mr. President, you fucking idiot!), or someone... "unmutual"... someone will talk.

Adam Weishaupt, my ass.

Anyway, wasn't I going to write about those JFK documents?  Yeah.  Here goes.  I'll read them, just to see.  Will it be a "holy shit" day when those documents come out?  Maybe.  I may revisit this post!  I've done that in the past.  What would be really interesting is if Trump has his people look through some documents to try to find something that makes the FBI or CIA look like they did something shifty in the Kennedy assassination, and selectively releases those to discredit them because he is involved in a conflict with them over Russia, but...

Fuck!  You see what I just did there?  That's conspiratorial!  And so is a shitload of the Russia stuff.  The difference between Russia conspiracy ideas and JFK conspiracy theories?  People have already talked on Russia.  We know, for example, that Don Jr. met with a fuckin' Russian spy during the campaign with the intent of getting dirt on Clinton as part of Putin's desire to help elect Trump.  That's not conspiracy theorizing.  That's established fact act this point.  Manafort is already facing an indictment, and Flynn is in deep shit.

Remember what I said about loose lips sinking conspiratorial ships?  Once you see some ships goin' down, things start looking a little different.

Nevertheless, I will read those documents with interest.  Of greater interest, though, will be the social reaction.  Everything is about the show, for Trump.  This is about spectacle.  And probably distraction.  Take a step back and focus on that.

Anyway, here's some bonus music.  While Amorica, by The Black Crowes, was one of the best rock albums of the '90s, I'll use youtube to put up a live track for, um... reasons.

* Nelson Polsby was my grad school advisor, and I have, on occasion, tried to figure out whether or not Nelson Polsby stole this one from anyone else.  As far as I can tell, it is a Nelson Polsby original, and outside of political science, Nelson ain't that famous anyway.  So, I will keep attributing it to Nelson.

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

I admit it.  Sarah Jarosz is great.  The version of "Tell Me True" from Live at the Troubadour is even better than the original album track, from Song Up In Her Head.  Anyway, without further ado...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The White House staff and Trump's lies

Well, I planned to write something this morning on the conflicting expectations people have regarding the nature of the Presidency and those phone calls, and a bunch of political science and blah, blah, blah, and then I perused my usual news cites, which include Roll Call, and I saw this.

Short version:  Trump lied, saying that he either always or nearly always contacted "gold star families," and that as soon as he told that lie, the White House staff then went into damage control mode to try to turn that lie into the truth.

I have written many times, oh so many times, about what a fuckin' liar Trump is, as have plenty of others, but it really is hard to grapple, not just with the scale of Trump's lies, but with the problem he presents to the political system, including journalism, political science and civil society itself.

I have made a lot of character references when describing Donald Trump.  Tony Clifton.  Mel Brooks' King Louis XVIFergus LaingPresident Camacho.  Today, Tommy Flanagan-- the "pathological liar" character created by John Lovitz, from back when I used to watch Saturday Night Live.

Tommy Flanagan is President, and his staff has been tasked with either looking for ways to defend his lies, or trying retroactively to turn them into truth.  And our tax dollars are paying them for this.

Let's contrast this with congressional staff.  Each Member of Congress, House or Senate, has a budget for staff, and their staff has to handle a variety of tasks, from legislative (although Congress doesn't do much legislating anymore) to constituency service.  That latter set is actually significant.  If you have a problem with the federal government, here's some free advice from your friendly, neighborhood political scientist (come on, people-- it's a reference!).  Contact your Representative.  He or she will kiss your ass.  Need a passport faster?  Call your Representative.  Problem with some federal benefit?  Call your Representative.  They love to do this shit.  Why?  It is easy for them, and they think it gets them votes.

How many votes?  That's hard to say, but books have been written about the extent to which the incumbency advantage is based on the fact that incumbents can do this kind of thing, and challengers can't.  See, for example, Bruce Cain, John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina's The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence.  (Full disclosure:  Bruce Cain was one of my grad school advisors).  The thing is, it isn't just Members of Congress handling constituency service.  They are devoting staff resources to this.  Sometimes rather a lot of those resources, actually.  And that's OK because those resources are actually serving the interests of the constituents.  Or, as I would argue, those resources are actually being put to use by the Member of Congress, who is an employee, for the benefit of the constituents, who are the employers.  No problems there.  One can argue about the proper allocation of resources and whether more should be spent on legislative activity, oversight, etc., but constituency service is a valid use of legislative resources given the employer-employee relationship between Members of Congress and their constituents.

That's not what's going on with the White House staff.  Their job, on a regular basis, is to help Trump cover up for the fact that he is Tommy Fucking Flanagan.  They are serving no public interest at all, drawing salaries from taxpayer-funded pots of money, and helping the most shameless liar in American political history attempt to get away with the dumbest lies this country has ever seen.  I am not attempting to emphasize the stupidity of Trump's lies here.  I am attempting to emphasize the contrast between the use of resources for White House staff, right now in Trump's White House, and traditional, constituency service-based use of staff in congressional staff offices.

Are there dishonest Members of Congress whose staff have to help them cover up their shit?  Sure, but nobody lies like Trump.  This is off the charts.  And we are paying the salaries of people whose job it is to cover up Trump's lies, or to go back and try to make them retroactively true.

I wonder where all those supposed deficit-hawks stand on this use of taxpayer dollars...

Saturday music: If you don't love country, you hate 'mer'ca

So many choices for today.  I just couldn't decide, so a twofer today.  Dickey Betts's title track from Highway Call.  He was on a break from The Allman Brothers in '74, and recorded a great country album.  Guests on the album included luminaries like Vassar Clements.  Vassar, alas, wasn't on this track, but I'm doing my theme schtick.  Then, Steve Earle's "Telephone Road," from El Corazon.  Nothing needs to be said about Steve Earle.  Steve Earle and Dickey Betts today.  You're welcome.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate America

I lean too heavily on the old guys in the jazz series, but today, I get to use Takuya Kuroda.  "Call," from Rising Son.  Great modern soul-jazz.

Don't get distracted. Important things are happening in Congress.

It is easy to get distracted.  I may write something this weekend on this stupid shit with the phone calls to veterans' families, or, or, or...

Regardless, important things are happening in Congress.  Remember how I've been saying that the GOP would have an easier time on taxes than on healthcare?  They've been having a little difficulty getting the budget resolution together, but the Senate just passed the House's budget.  Yes, this is technical, but it really matters.

Reminder: the Republicans are doing everything through "budget resolution" because a budget resolution bill can't be filibustered in the Senate.  Debate times are automatically set by the rules of budget resolution, so the minority party can't just refuse to yield the floor and vote against cloture because no cloture motion is necessary to end debate.  Debate just cuts off automatically.

Sorry.  Technical stuff.  Presumably, if you are reading a political scientist's blog, you are here for some technical shit on occasion.  But hey, jazz goes up tonight!

One of the necessary steps in this is the passage of that budget resolution.  The GOP has been having some difficulty with the resolution, and that could have spelled trouble for their tax goals.  I never bought into the idea that they'd fail on the budget resolution, though.  On the other hand, if they were completely unified, this would have been easier.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I expect the tax issue to play out differently from healthcare, but the devil is in the details.  Now that the GOP has a procedural map for what to do, it is all about ironing out those details and sorting out those devils.  With that in mind, here are a few reminders before I get into what's next:

1)  Tax cuts versus tax reform.  A tax reform bill means lowering rates while eliminating deductions in order to keep revenues constant.  It is, conceptually (generally speaking), revenue-neutral.  The degree to which you can lower rates depends on the degree to which you eliminate deductions.  Deductions are popular, nobody in the GOP congressional delegation really wants to eliminate any major deductions, so this won't happen.  They just want to cut taxes.

2)  Under reconciliation rules, that means limiting the tax cuts to a) expire in 10 years because you can't increase the deficit for more than 10 years under the Byrd rule, and b) the reconciliation instructions put a cap on the degree of deficit expansion permitted.

3)  That puts the GOP at war with itself on whose taxes get cut.  Income taxes, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes...  We have a lot of different taxes, and different Members of Congress have different priorities.  Basically every Republican in Congress hates taxes, and regardless of what they say about the deficit, stick a deficit-increasing tax cut in front of them, and until they demonstrate otherwise, my default assumption is that any GOP legislator who claims to oppose deficit-increasing tax cuts is a fuckin' liar.  Yeah, John McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts long ago, but he was just pissed at Bush over the 2000 election.  Then again, he hates Trump, and he seems to be checking items off his bucket list.

Regardless, the budget passed the Senate, and it did so because Republicans support the concept of tax cuts.  In the case of healthcare, the problem was the "replace" part of "repeal-and-replace."  It never meant a fuckin' thing.  It was a word added to "repeal" once the protections for pre-existing conditions, etc. went into effect because a simple repeal stopped being politically viable, but the party never had any clue what even the rough outlines of a replacement plan might be.  And they didn't even really start until after Trump's surprise victory, and even then, they skipped anything like a normal legislative process with hearings, mark-up, etc.  That was the problem.  They never had even a common concept for "replace."  That's not true with taxes.  They support tax cuts, regardless of what the people who claim to be deficit hawks say.  They may simply have different priorities on which taxes get cut.

So, given that the resolution passed the Senate, in order for the Republicans to fail on taxes, at least two people have to flip.  The resolution passed 51-49.  With Pence, they can lose two one of those 51 and still pass something.  Failure means two of those 51 have to decide, "yeah, I like the idea of cutting taxes, but this specific set of tax cuts isn't the set of droids I'm looking for."  So, unless someone jedi mind-tricks them, the only way the GOP fails is if they screw up the process of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of a constrained set of tax cuts.

They could!  They have $1.5 trillion to spread around, and not everyone has the same priorities.  At the end of the process, though, there will be a bill, and anyone who votes no will be voting to keep taxes at their current rates, versus a package of tax cuts worth $1.5 trillion.

Everybody kind of has a thing.  John Coltrane played the saxophone.  Trump lies.  Republicans?  They cut taxes.  It's what they do.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trump, Ryan and that maybe-bipartisan deal on cost-sharing subsidies

Hey, watch me keep writing about substance rather than all of the bullshit going on!  I'm displaying willpower

Yesterday, I wrote about the possible Alexander-Murray deal to restore cost-sharing subsidies to the health insurance markets.  I wrote about several possible obstacles, including Trump and the House of Representatives.  Since then, Trump has backtracked on his initial support, and Ryan has been less than enthusiastic about the deal.  How do we interpret these?

With Trump, there is no informational content in anything he says.  Remember, Trump is not just a pathological liar.  He is also a brainless bullshitter and extemporizing bloviator.  Translation:  he talks out of his ass without thinking because he doesn't know shit from shinola.  What did it mean when he gave initial tentative support for Alexander-Murray?  Nothing.  What did it mean yesterday when he backed away from Alexander-Murray?  Nothing.  Trump's words mean nothing because they come from Donald J. Trump.  This is the same guy who spent years telling everyone that Obama was born in Kenya, and that he had investigators in Hawaii who were finding incredible things that were just about to be released.  This is the guy who ran that "Trump University" scam, and so forth.  What do Trump's words mean?  Nothing.  What would Trump do, if presented with a bill based on the Alexander-Murray concept?  Who the fuck knows?  He's Trump.  I doubt he knows.  Tell him he's repealing Obamacare, and he'll sign it.  It's not like he'd read it.

Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is a strategic actor.  As I wrote yesterday, he is in a strategic bind.  He is almost certainly unthrilled with Trump's actions, and if I had to bet, I'd bet he would prefer to put Alexander-Murray, once formulated into a bill, up for a vote.  I'd also bet that, for position-taking purposes (see Mayhew, David), he would prefer to vote against the bill, but simply allowing the bill to come up for a vote as Speaker would tell you his real preferences.  If he really opposed a bill, he'd never let it get a vote.  Ryan wants those subsidies back to ensure stabilization of the markets because destabilized markets hurt the party in power.  That would be the GOP.  The problem is, as I said yesterday, Ryan is worried about his right-flank.  Those would be the "knuckleheads," in John Boehner's words, who sacked one of the best Speakers in modern history.  I'm still speaking of John Boehner.  So, where does that leave Ryan?  Here.  Ryan is tepid at best in his reaction to Alexander-Murray, and mostly just saying REPEAL REPEAL REPEAL!  Why?  Either Ryan is all in on sabotage, or he feels constrained by those who want sabotage.

The thing is that Ryan has a record.  Ryan was never one of the bomb-throwers.  While he is a far-right conservative, he has always been more pragmatic than the knuckleheads.  He was never a "let's breach the debt ceiling and see what happens" kind of guy.  He was never a "let's shut down the government for the fucking hell of it" kind of guy.  Ryan is way conservative, but he is more of a pragmatist than a bomb-thrower (the term going back to the Gingrich era).  Blocking Alexander-Murray is Gingrich-style bomb-throwing.  Trump is a direct political descendent of Newt Gingrich and the bomb-throwers.  That's why Trump and Gingrich got along so well.  (Well, that and the combination of stupidity, arrogance and womanizing...)  Given Ryan's general preference for pragmatism, I see Ryan's response here as that of a man constrained by the fear of getting Boehnered rather than a belief that Alexander-Murray should be blocked in favor of continued, futile work on that "repeal-and-replace" nonsense.

What happens now?  No clue.  Ryan didn't actually say, I ain't passin' that shit, and Trump is just... Trump.  Trying to predict what happens with this kind of thing right now is a mug's game.  There are lawsuits, terror in the healthcare markets... This is all just chaotic and crazy.  Yup, just another Thursday in the Trump era.

But hey, it isn't like anyone in the White House is using private email accounts, right?

Oh, wait...