Friday, May 25, 2018

More on the House immigration discharge petition

Well, I did warn of interruptions.

It looks like that discharge petition for the House immigration bill will get its 218 signatures, according to Roll Call.  What does that mean?

1)  It probably passes the House.

2)  The Senate?  Who knows?  That doesn't matter, though, because...

3)  Trump will veto anything.  As the article mentions, Trump's demand is his stupid, fucking wall that Mexico was supposed to fund as a condition to sign anything, and that ain't gonna happen, so this is all posturing anyway.  The political science term is "veto-bait."

4)  I warned earlier that Ryan's failure on the farm bill could help push the discharge petition over the top by showing his weakness, and that was right around a week ago. 

5)  What does this mean for the building coup attempt against Ryan?  I've been warning about that repeatedly.  Ryan is in some serious trouble.  If that immigration bill passes, without wall money, look for the Freedom Caucus to get their Boehners up and try to perform for their base again.  The best case Ryan will be able to make is that Trump will veto it, but Trump might get pissed about the bill making it out of the House, and turn on him anyway.  PredictIt currently has it at just over a coin toss that Ryan makes it through the year.  My investment advice remains the same:  well-diversified, passively-managed funds, but watch the timeline here.

On timeline matters, though, something to consider is that we are closing out the primary season.  That means it isn't quite as important for the Freedom Caucu...asians(?), yeah, Freedom Caucasians  to... perform for their base right now, and the value of kicking Ryan to the curb before 2019 is relatively low.

So, Ryan might be saved by the timeline.  Still, this is bad for Paulie.

Richard Fenno wrote a book about the new Republican congressional majority after the 1994 election, and the observation that chaos ensued because the 40-year stretch of Democratic dominance meant that nobody in the GOP knew how to be a governing party.  Least of all, Newton Leroy Gingrich.

Funny, but 24 years later, with only a four-year stretch of Democratic control between 2006 and 2010, the House GOP has gotten more inept.  (John Boehner excepted, but they ran him out of town on a rail, which is part of my point).

How does that even work?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On power and corruption, Part III: The moral incentives of enablers

And after an interruption to discuss Paul Ryan, we're back.  As always with these things, expect interruptions.  Stuff happens.

Anyway, in Part II, I addressed the basic notion that if you know you are going to acquit a corrupt person, like Donald Trump, it is easier to do that, cognitively, if you avoid hearing any evidence of his guilt.  So, stonewall all investigations, tune out any sources of information that might tell you the truth, block out facts and create a general cloud of bullshit that obscures anyone's ability to pick out reality from the miasma of lies.  And, this is important, do this in part to save yourself the cognitive dissonance of having to acquit someone you know is guilty.  I mean, you could do the right thing, but... yeah, that ain't gonna happen.  Remember, we're talking about the enablers here.

There is, however, another approach.

If you can't rewrite the facts, rewrite your own moral code.  Mulligans all around!

He didn't do it.  What?  He did it?  Then it must have been OK.

How difficult is this?  Remarkably easy, judging by political history.  I write frequently about the difference between policy preferences and process preferences.  Consider, for example, the filibuster.  Is it a vital protection for the rights of the minority party, or the worst thing ever because it gets in the way of majority rule, and majority rule is the definition of democracy?

I've written about this kind of thing before.  Be careful about what you claim as a moral principle.  For so many people, it is situational because once you take an actual moral stance, it can come back to bite you.  And when it does, you have to decide whether or not you are willing to lose.

Democracy is actually all about that.  The important book here is Loser's Consent.  Go read it.  You really should.  Basically, everything goes to shit when one side decides that they aren't willing to accept a loss.  When you rewrite your moral code to decide that my side is right, no matter what, and anything is legitimate to keep my side in power, no matter what, because losing is illegitimate...

That way lies badness.

The basic point, though, is that peoples' morals are... flexible.

Have you ever done a bad thing in your life?  Yes.  What excuses did you make to protect your sense of self?  I'm not talking about what you told others.  I'm talking about what you tell yourself.  Maybe the pop-stuff by Dan Ariely here is less rigorous than my usual citations, but hey, this isn't my academic specialty.

And this is written into politics anyway.  You evaluate your friends and family more favorably for the same behavior than you would for strangers or people whom you have reason to dislike.  Add an adversarial context, like partisan politics and you magnify the effect.

Being morally consistent is very hard.  It is not the default.  All of the personal, cognitive and political incentives run against it.  Rewriting your moral code to suit the circumstances?  That's actually far easier, at least in cases that are maybe vaguely marginal.  That's how most human brains work.

The issue is that there are cases that are... not marginal.  What makes a particularly reprehensible enabler is full cognition of the facts of the case, and a conscious decision to engage in moral doublethink.  Consciously deciding to go from Russia-is-the-enemy to Putin-is-awesome and the Don Jr. meeting was cool because of Trump... that's rewriting the moral code.

As I said, though, we should not be surprised that this kind of thing happens.  It's just an extreme case.

After all, we regularly see the parties flip on which one likes the filibuster, and which one hates it.  Trump's enablers are just taking that basic impulse to unprecedented extremes, and they are doing so because losing is unthinkable to them.

That kind of gives you a hint at the direction this series is going, I guess.  And by "hint," I mean that I am thinking as I write.  Stay tuned!  Expect interruptions, though.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Paul Ryan, that coup possibility, and an I-told-you-so

Have you heard the rumors about a coup against Ryan because that immigration bill might reach a floor vote?


Back in September of 2017, I told you so.  And I've said it a bunch of times since, every time anyone says anything about immigration bills.

OK, I was maybe wrong about whether or not the bill gets a vote, but the result if it does?  That was clear.  Boehnerland.  One-way ticket, baby!

On power and corruption, Part II: The cognitive incentives of enablers

Welcome back for Part II of who-knows-how-many?

In Part I, I introduced the basic problem for this series.  In any institutional power structure, like, say, the US government, a reprehensible person might attain a position of power.  However, the most reprehensible people are the least interesting people to study.  The important ones to study are their enablers.  The ones who put those reprehensible people in power, and keep them there.

So, consider the GOP congressional delegation.  As I have been writing, over, and over, and over again, Trump will get away with it.  Everything.  Why?  2/3.  That pesky constitutional requirement.  The Democrats may have a slight edge for control of the House after the 2018 midterm elections, but I doubt they'd pass articles of impeachment, and even if they did, there is zero chance of reaching the 2/3 requirement for conviction in the Senate, because that would require Senate Republicans to go along with it.  That won't happen.  No matter what.

Those congressional Republicans are the enablers.  The people who have decided that Trump gets away with everything, for a variety of reasons, and that's the point.  If you aren't just a stone-cold sociopath (such people are uninteresting), how do you decide that a clearly corrupt person must be protected from any investigation or potential consequences of their actions?

The most expedient way is to convince yourself that there are no necessary consequences to impose.  You are doing right by protecting the corrupt person because, whatever else that person is, that person didn't commit crimes.  How do you do that, again, if you aren't a stone-cold sociopath?

There's a famous line from Upton Sinclair:  "It is difficult to get a man [again with this...] to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

People are remarkably bad at processing information, particularly when they have incentives to not process it.  If you know you have to acquit Trump, for example, you must convince yourself that blah, blah, blah, "fake news, HILLARY'S EMAILS," or something.  NO COLLUSION!!!  WITCH HUNT!!!  Bigly hands!  Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russians?  Flynn, Manafort, Roger Stone, all of that?  If you have to come to the conclusion that Trump and his people are all innocent and it's all "fake news," then you simply cannot process any such information.  You have to refuse to listen or understand.  Block out any discussion, shut down the Mueller investigation, or at least put a cloud around it with bullshit accusations about the FBI, and so forth.  Then, only watch Fox, where they will never talk about the tangled web of connections between Trump and Russia, the disconnect between the Rosenstein letter and what Trump said about Comey to Lester Holt, etc.

I had some... fun at Devin Nunes's expense, but from the Upton Sinclair point of view, if your goal is to avoid understanding, the whole point of that kind of thing is the lack of factual basis.

If you begin with the premise that a corrupt person must be found innocent because you cannot bear the political consequences of removing that person from office, that's a helluva lot easier if you convince yourself that there is no crime by participating in a grand obfuscation to make it easier to avoid having to process any facts.

So is it any wonder the congressional GOP is letting Trump pressure Rosenstein into a bullshit investigation into the FBI?  One of the most historically Republican federal agencies in existence?

The worst thing for any congressional Republican with any self-respect, from a psychological point of view, would be if Mueller, say, found the golden shower tape along with a tape of Trump promising Putin favors to avoid its release.  Congressional Republicans would still defend Trump.  They'd just really hate themselves for doing it.

That's why they have such strong cognitive incentives to avoid ever encountering any facts themselves.

It's easy for us to look at the clutter of bullshit and think that it's all about confusing the people Trump has duped among the populace, and that's a big part.  The bigger part, to be sure.

Think about people like John McCain and Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, though.  They'll all cave, no matter what.  They're not sociopaths, though.  They hate Trump.  Voting to acquit when you have been presented evidence of guilt gets psychologically harder, though, the stronger the evidence gets.

That's why none of them want to see any evidence.  Yes, the Senate panel at least admitted the Russians were trying to elect Trump with their meddling, making them somewhat less of a joke than the House panel, but there's still no willingness by Senate Republicans to look into Trump or his inner circle.  And there never will be.

Where's this series going?  Stay tuned.  I've got some ideas!  And coffee!  Lots, and lots of coffee!

Mmmmmm.... cauuuffee...*

*Yeah, I had to spell it that way or your mental pronunciation would have been off.  Funny how English works, right?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On power and corruption, Part I: The enablers are the ones to watch

I haven't done a series for a while.  I like these.

Trump's latest maneuvers pressuring Rosenstein to "investigate" the FBI shouldn't surprise anyone.  People in positions of power have power.  Call it the tautology of power.  It also means that challenging anyone in power is very, very difficult because they have institutional support structures designed to insulate them from the consequences of their misdeeds.

What about checks and balances, you say?

Yeah, those... don't work anymore.  And that's kind of my point.  So, at this point, we always turn to James Madison.  "If men [insert comment here] were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men [uh...] neither external nor internal controls over government would be necessary."

Donald Trump is a reprehensible... thing.  Remember those external and internal controls Madison mentioned, though.  Trump is such a piece of shit that it isn't even worth examining him for my purposes here.  Freud has been basically relegated to the scrapheap of psychology history, and that's saying something given the replication crisis (look it up, kids), but we're going Freudian today, because nobody is more penis-obsessed than Donny-boy.  More importantly, despite the colloquial use of the word, "ego," in Freudian terms, Trump is basically just "id."  Poorly developed ego, and no superego.  Just id.  He acts on base desires and impulses.  That means he is not really the one to examine.  Yet, he is in a position of power.

We, however, are not currently in a tribal warlord society in which the guy who can defeat anyone in deadly combat rules the tribe, even if he acts on pure id.  That's not how our polity works.  What allows someone like Trump to attain and hold a position of power?  He is put in a position of power, and allowed to keep it.

The important people to understand, then, are the enablers.  The support structure.  The corruption of someone like Donald Trump exists because other people in positions of power not only tolerate it, but protect him for their own reasons.  If you want to understand Trump's place in American politics, you need to understand who put him there, and who ensures that he is allowed to keep doing whatever he wants.  I'm not even talking about the voters.  I'm talking about the institutional figures.  In particular, the ones who understand that Trump is a sociopath.  Trumpists who actually, truly like the guy are uninteresting.  The ones who are important for us to understand are the ones who hate him, and know he is corrupt, but back him anyway.  Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan do not act on pure impulse.  They don't like or respect Trump.  They make conscious calculations that their incentives are to protect Trump-- a man they detest, don't respect, know is corrupt, but will go to the political ends of the earth to protect because they have made that political and moral calculation.

I'm going to do a series about this.  Let's get this thing going.  Where's it going?  I don't know.  To quote Indy, "I'm making this up as I go."

Tuesday music: A break from tradition, with more American music

Because... really.  I'm just not going to explain it.  Instead, I'm going to put up something quintessentially American.  Hendrix.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The New York Times and a math-fail

I just couldn't resist this one.  To those of you who can't bring yourselves to read anything critical of the GUN CONTROL NOW NOW NOW mentality, come on.  Keep reading.  It's intellectually healthy.  Some of you just stopped reading, though.  I know it.

"New Reality for High School Students: Calculating the Risk of Getting Shot."  If one were to read the headline alone, with a statistically-oriented mind, one might take this as an indication that people are finally realizing that the actual probability of getting shot in a school shooting is lower than the probability of dying of heart disease as a youth.  Really.  Denominators matter.  I've done the math on this for you before.  The risk of getting shot is very, very, very low.  Lower than the risk of texting and driving by far.  It's not even close.  So, worry way more about one than the other.  Strangely, though, the NYT article is about kids worrying about getting shot, with nary a word about how much danger they face every time they text and drive.  As I know they do.  And so do you.

And every time they do, they put you and me in danger too.  I... don't appreciate that.

Probability of X happening, estimated, is as follows:  number of occurrences divided by number of opportunities.  What makes an event "news?"  The fact that it is unusual.  School shootings are unusual given the number of opportunities.  You know what is more common?  Well, there's my normal thing about deaths by waterborne pathogens and malaria, which are a) far more deadly, and b) far easier to address for anyone who actually, truly, really, sincerely cares about saving lives.  Even then, though, as I wrote earlier, kids dying of heart disease.  It's so common it doesn't make the news.  That's why you don't think about it, and that's why they don't worry about it.

But it's a bigger risk.  Math says so.

And texting and driving?  A way bigger risk.  And that one is far more in their control because while you can't control another driver's irresponsible behavior, you can choose to drive responsibly yourself.  Certain people make fun of me for driving like a granny, but I get great insurance rates, at least!

Anyway, by focusing on the news stories, ignoring denominators and ignoring what is so common it doesn't get covered, people completely miss the point and fail to calculate risk.  This isn't calculating risk.  It is just getting scared about the wrong stuff because shootings are rare enough to get covered in the news, and texting-and-driving accidents are way too common to get covered by the news.

What should we be teaching high school students about shootings?  We should be teaching them the math.  The probability of getting hurt is very, very, very low.  Don't teach them to shit their pants about necrotizing fasciitis or ebola because they aren't going to get necrotizing fasciitis or ebola.  When there are news stories about necrotizing fasciitis or ebola, teach them the truth, and the truth includes the math.  Stop teaching people to panic about shit that ain't gonna happen.  Teach them the actual probability that X will happen.

Death by shootings among high school-aged kids happen.  They happen almost entirely outside of schools.  They happen in neighborhoods with high crime rates, and they happen when kids commit suicide with their parents' guns.  Those are separate issues from how scared kids should be in school.

School shootings, by the numbers, are very low-probability events.

"Calculating the risk" would mean taking into account the denominator.  I don't see that happening anywhere.

Now, by contrast, imagine if the murder rate in this country were zero.  Not low, but zero.  For 50 years.  With over 300,000,000 people in the country at the end of that period with regular population growth.  Then, for a period of several years, we had one murder a month.  In a country with 300,000,000+ people in it.  Every one of those murders would be a major national news story, right?  What would be the effect?  It would cause everyone to think that these murders are common.  I call this, "the paradox of news"-- news stories make everyone think that events are common when the thing that makes a story newsworthy is its rarity.  The result?  People freak out, hide in their houses, give everyone sidelong glances like everyone is out to get them or might soon snap in a true epidemic of paranoia, and... did you notice I didn't say anything about what the other causes of mortality were in this hypothetical alternative universe?  Wouldn't it make sense to look at that?  Yes.  By omitting that, I am forcing you to think about the denominator.  That's the point.  You don't get to ignore the denominator.

That's the difference between personal tragedies and that which justifies fear.  Just because we have tragedies occurring-- and they are tragic-- doesn't mean you need to be afraid of them happening to you.

Stop being afraid.  Stop teaching people to be afraid.  Stop enabling fear.  Stop encouraging fear.  You are afraid of the wrong things.  Always look at the denominator.

Your new homework assignment is something I haven't done in a while.  Go watch "Child Abduction Is Not Funny," from South Park's 6th season.  Parents see some news stories about child abduction, and freak out.  They decide they need to... build a wall around South Park.  Yeah...  That plays a little differently today.  They turn to the owner of the Chinese restaurant, because they're idiot, racist hicks.  Of course, he starts building it, and as he does, Mongolians show up, 'cuz...  Eventually, though, the news stories say that the abductions are usually from family members.  Parents freak out even more, kick the kids out of South Park, where they find that the Mongolians are actually kids who have been kicked out of the house by idiot parents who were afraid that the other parent was going to abduct them.

Hey, I've got an idea.  Let's look at denominators.  Instead of teaching kids in high school to freak the fuck out about school shootings, maybe we should teach them to calm down, explain to them how unlikely they are to be hurt, by the numbers, show them that, for example, texting and driving is way more dangerous than showing up to school, and generally, you know...

... teach them about how to assess risk without just reading headlines and assuming that what gets a headline does so because it's common.

The opposite is true.

Because you know what?  This freakout everyone is doing?  You're letting the terrorists school shooters win.