Saturday, December 31, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part XI: Clinton's competence

One more valence trait to go: competence.  Remember, the question isn't about how competent Clinton was, but about how competent she was relative to Trump.

I won't bother with the bullshit, like Benghazi, or the other fake scandals that Republicans have tried to drum up around Clinton and what she did right or wrong.  There are two real hits on Clinton's competence: the Iraq War vote, and the email thing.  Yes, there is a real competence issue on the latter.  Not a criminal issue, but a competence issue.

Let's start with the Iraq War vote.  Given what we knew at the time, should we have invaded Iraq?  Donald Trump insisted during the campaign that he had a competence advantage over Clinton because he knew, in advance, that it was a mistake, whereas Clinton voted to invade.  She did vote to invade.  Most people-- basically, everybody except John McCain and his rentboy, Lindsey Graham-- at this point acknowledge that, given what we know now, we shouldn't have gone in, including Clinton.  But, what about given the information we had in 2002 and 2003?

This, of course, was one of Trump's most famous lies.  Here he is on Howard Stern's radio show in 2002...



So, no, Trump didn't have the foresight to oppose invading Iraq when Clinton supported it.  No competence advantage there.

Then, there's the email thing.  Yes, Clinton supporters, this is a real competence issue.  There was no crime.  This was a bullshit scandal, but had Clinton been a normal employee, handling information like that would have been a fireable offense.

And that kind of behavior can put national security at risk.

Because, ya' know, emails can get, um, hacked.

By...

... Russia.

...

... From whom Trump will obviously keep all national security secrets safe.

On the general issue of competence, though, Clinton really did receive some advice from Colin Powell on... not doing everything on the State Department servers.  She took bad advice, and took it to an extreme.  That's not the kind of thing you want a president to do.

Serious point, then: do you trust Trump to keep national security secrets?  Clinton's motive was to be secretive.  She wanted her information on a private server.  The motive backfired.

With Trump, the issue will be as follows:  he tweets so many lies that he could reveal national security secrets, through twitter, and you'd never know it!  I'm being serious.  This is the poker strategy of knowing that you can't keep a poker face, so you just act like a jackass all the time and your behavior when you bluff looks just like your behavior when your hand is good.

Whether or not Trump can be trusted to keep secrets from Putin in other contexts is another matter.  His debt to Putin in the election is small, but there.  Putin really did intervene in the election to try to get Trump into the White House, and everyone knows it.  And everyone should have understood it going into the ballot booth.  When the DNC hack was revealed, we all knew it was Russia, and when it happened, Trump was already talking about not defending our NATO allies if Russia invaded them, having already invaded Crimea.  This wasn't a secret at the time.  Making matters worse, his campaign manager was deeply entangled with Putin's pawns in Ukraine.  None of this was secret.  Clinton didn't keep her emails on a server that was secure from Russia, but Trump's connections to Russia have always been the kind of thing that would make Joe McCarthy's head explode, Scanners-style.

Then, there's this.



I'm going to keep using this clip because there is no getting around how troubling this is.  Donald Trump doesn't understand that nuclear weapons are a deterrent rather than a first strike weapon.  That is a competence issue far beyond anything facing Clinton as a candidate.  That is a competence issue far beyond anything facing any candidate any party has nominated in the nuclear age.  If you do not understand nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence and the stakes involved, you have no business anywhere near the White House.  When I write that Donald Trump is the most incompetent candidate we have ever seen, this is what I mean.  There are other aspects of public policy that Clinton understands.  There are none that Trump understands.  Clinton understands the basic functioning of government, while Trump does not.  None of this is on the level of Trump's failure to understand nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, the concept of deterrence, as explained by Thomas Schelling in his Nobel Prize-winning book, The Strategy of Conflict, is so central to all political matters that a politician incapable of grasping it will fail to grasp pretty much anything.

Has Clinton read Schelling?  I'd bet she has...

Competence advantage?  Clinton, by a long shot.

But, what did voters think about it?  Well, I guess that'll be Part XII...

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

A couple of picks for 2016 country albums.  First, Sturgill Simpson's "A Sailor's Guide To Earth."  Here's a live version of the final track.



Next, Western Centuries' "Weight of the World."



Finally, they aren't quite country, but I use their twangier tracks in this series plenty enough that it would look odd if I left this off.  They are getting enough attention, though, that they make this list look almost... mainstream.  Nah.  I've been listening to these guys since before you ever heard of them.



Honorable mention to Lydia Loveless's new album, although she hasn't topped her first album yet.  Also, I've left off Gillian Welch's album since it is basically just demos and alternate versions from her debut.  Yes, it's better than anything else, but it isn't new material, so I won't count it.

Also, I still haven't gotten new albums by Malcolm Holcombe, Darrell Scott, Bo Ramsey, or several others.  Too much great music out there.

Friday, December 30, 2016

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

It's the end of the year, so this weekend's musical theme?  My favorite albums from 2016.  My favorite jazz album?  Charlie Hunter's new one, "Everybody Has A Plan Until They Get Punched In The Mouth."  If you are looking for the bassist, don't bother.  Charlie is playing both the bass line and the lead guitar line at the same time on a seven-string contraption with fanned frets.  How?  By being Charlie Fucking Hunter.  That's how.



I still haven't gotten the new ones by Takuya Kuroda or Theo Croker.  They should be good too.

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part X: Voters' assessments of honesty

Well, in Part IX, we made what should be the obvious point that Trump was the most dishonest presidential candidate we have ever seen.  By far.  However, the point of including "valence" characteristics in our electoral models is to make comparisons between candidates.  So, did voters see it that way?

Um, no.  Here's an example of a poll, from November 2, in which voters saw Trump as more honest by a margin of 46% to 38%.

What the fuck went wrong?  Here are a few observations.

1)  It wasn't just Comey.  Note that perceptions of Trump's honesty advantage were there during a lot of that graph.

2)  Voters really are pretty fucking gullible.  As I said in Part VI, you basically had to be a rube to buy into Trump's act, and a lot of people really were rubes.

3)  The media weren't doing their fucking jobs.  (Yes, that was grammatically correct.  "Media": plural).  I don't just mean they were giving Trump too much of a pass on his lies-- I mean they were covering Clinton's pseudo-scandals, like the "Clinton Foundation" nonsense as though it had been a real corruption issue.  No policy decisions were influenced by donations to the Clinton Foundation, and every investigation came to that conclusion.  On the other hand, the "Trump Foundation" bribed Pam Bondi (Florida Attorney General) to call off a criminal investigation into "Trump University" in Florida, everyone did know that, and the latter got almost no coverage.  That is a failure of the media, and one that contributes to voters' failure to make an accurate comparison of who was more dishonest.

4)  Impressions of candidates form early, and are difficult to change.  The critical concept from cognitive psychology is the "schema."  It is a sort of way of looking at the world, and once you develop a schema, you tend to twist information you receive to fit within that schema.  So, if you develop a schema of Clinton in which she is dishonest, and do so early on (say, in the 1990's), then any piece of information you receive after that will be twisted to fit within that schema.  If you develop a schema of Trump in which he is just a blustery, straight-talking guy who wants to shake stuff up, then whatever he says that isn't factually true gets written off as just bluster rather than dishonesty.  Aren't schemas fun?

For a variety of reasons, then, voters just got it wrong.  Way wrong on honesty.

Next up, competence!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part IX: Clinton's honesty

Elections are about comparisons, and while this post may be somewhat perfunctory, it is logically necessary.  We have two valence traits to assess:  honesty and competence.  If Trump was, by far, the most dishonest candidate we have ever seen, then it follows that Clinton was more honest.  We could also say that she was less dishonest, which is denotatively equivalent but connotatively more dismissive, but, whatever.

I have my problems with PolitiFact, but it is a useful reference point.  Here is Trump's record.   Now, here is Clinton's record.  Not even close.  Now, remember that PolitiFact is under pressure to try to keep things even for fear of accusations of bias, and they only evaluate a subset of statements.  They also can't put weight on statements that are more central to a candidate's campaign or political life, or less weight on statements that are throwaway lines.  Nevertheless, it is a useful baseline.

Clinton lies.  But nowhere near as often, as brazenly or as egregiously as Trump.  Look through the lies, and compare them to Trump accusing Ted Cruz's father of being involved in the Kennedy assassination, or calling global warming a Chinese hoax, and then denying having made that claim in a debate to add layers on top of layers of bullshit.  Clinton's last "pants on fire" lie in her file was to claim that Trump wanted to let the auto industry die, twisting his words to mean the opposite of what he said.  That's the equivalent of Trump's denial of the Chinese hoax tweet.  But, where is Clinton's equivalent of claiming that global warming is a Chinese hoax in the first place, or that Ted Cruz's father killed Kennedy?  Uh, yeah.  This ain't close.  Trump is the bigger liar by far, and that's just an attempt to find an apples-to-apples comparison.  By the numbers, Trump was way ahead on lies in PolitiFact's scorecard anyway.

This post was somewhat perfunctory, but necessary for the series.  As I said when I introduced the "valence dimension", the important point is that there is a policy dimension, and there are characteristics that voters supposedly want intrinsically, like competence and honesty.  On honesty, this isn't close.  Clinton beats Trump.  Period.  Clinton may not be even close to the most honest politician around, but she was running against the most dishonest politician we have ever seen, by far.

But, did voters make that comparison?  Stay tuned for the next installment...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Taking a break from "Assessing democracy..." to assess democracy in North Carolina

I'm going to take a quick break from the "Assessing democracy..." series to comment on a political science-y story floating around about North Carolina.  You may have noticed it.  North Carolina isn't a democracy!!!.

The claim comes from Andrew Reynolds and his participation in the Electoral Integrity Project, which assessed "democracy" across the states.  North Carolina faired poorly.

Full disclosure:  The EIP asked me to participate in an assessment of Ohio, but I declined on the grounds that I am not sufficiently attentive to state-level election administration here.  I do think that such projects would benefit from the participation of anti-goo-goos* like me, but oh well.

The EIP states that ranked highly were basically goo-goo-friendly states, meaning those with the least restrictive voter laws, the most restrictive campaign finance laws, and so forth.  My point today, though, is about Reynolds, and his comments on North Carolina.  His indictment of North Carolina is based on three claims:

1) District boundaries exaggerate the Republican legislative advantage

2) The bathroom bill, voter ID laws (presumably-- race and voting), and something about women

3) Upon losing the governorship, the Republicans stripped the executive branch of power

Point 1 is goo-goo bullshit.  Well, no.  It's mathematically true.  It's just a goo-goo bullshit complaint because he'd whine like a... singer-songwriter... if I told him the solution.

Here's the deal with redistricting.  Do you want to get rid of one party's mathematical advantage over the other?  Here's how you do it.  Draw one set of districts that are as close to 100% Democratic as possible.  Draw another set of districts that are as close to 100% Republican as possible.  The end result will be a legislature with a partisan balance that is an exact reflection of the population.

And why do goo-goos not want to hear that?  No competitive elections.  Fine by me.  I don't like competitive elections.

But wait, you say, doesn't that lock in a one-party majority forever?  Not if the parties are in actual balance and there is an odd number of seats.  Want a citation?  Read my article, "The Statistical Properties of Competitive Districts: What the Central Limit Theorem Can Teach Us About Election Reform."

Next, Point 2.  What the hell does the bathroom bill have to do with democracy?  Criticize it all you want, but whatever democracy is (poorly-defined as it is), it is about process, not policy.  The bathroom bill is policy.  To call North Carolina "not a democracy" on the basis of lawmaking misses the point about the process-policy distinction, and to combine the bathroom bill with voter ID laws is really to fail to see the distinction.

Voter ID laws, sure, but notice that North Carolina's poll numbers weren't the ones that were the most off, even though their laws were among the most restrictive.

Then, what was that about women?  I read it as a reference to the passage of restrictive abortion laws, but again, that is a process-policy issue, not to be combined with voter ID laws as though they are the same thing.

Everything so far is bullshit.

Point 3, though...

Now, Reynolds makes the real point.  This one, yup.  After McCrory lost, North Carolina Republicans stripped the Governor's office of power so that the incoming Democrat wouldn't be able to do much.  That's... yeah.

So, I wrote a pretty anti-goo-goo book called Hiring and Firing Public Officials: Rethinking the Purpose of Elections.  Elections aren't markets, so we don't want them to be competitive.  They are hiring and firing decisions.  We want a credible threat to fire bad employees to make them do their fucking jobs so that we don't have to fire them.  Pat McCrory got his ass fired.  In order to have the mechanism work properly, the punishment has to work.

North Carolina Republicans just took the sting out of the punishment at the party-level.  The mechanism doesn't work there.

I'm as anti-goo-goo a political scientist as you are likely to find, and yeah, North Carolina is not what I'd call a "democracy," whatever that means.  Reynolds confuses process and policy in his argument, but, North Carolina is fucked.

Tomorrow, back to the regular "Assessing democracy..." series.


* goo-goo: derogatory term for "good government" advocate.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part VIII: Yes, voters really knew that Trump is incompetent

Voters had an interesting time with Trump's "valence" characteristics.  While there were a variety of challenges with their assessments of his honesty, even though he pretty much broke the scale, his competence was another matter.

The common conservative mythology of the omni-competent CEO never held up for Trump, as I discussed yesterday, but part of what made him fascinating in the campaign is that most voters never actually bought it, so to speak.  (Aside from the chumps who bought into Trump University).

Trump is, at his core, a professional wrestler.  He is to business as Hulk Hogan is to martial arts: great at bragging about how great he is at it.  That brings me to the classic episode of South Park, "W.T.F."  The premise of the episode is that the kids go to a professional wrestling match, and decide to become wrestlers.  The general premise of the show, though, is that the kids are smarter than the adults.  The kids realize that wrestling is fake, and built around ridiculous, soap-opera storylines.  So, they create characters and write dialog with ridiculous, soap-opera storylines, and put on performances in the back yard.

Local adults start watching.  And they are stupid enough to think it is real.  Hijinks ensue.

Funny thing about Trump.  Most people knew that he wasn't qualified to be president.  This kind of survey isn't unique.  One might ask about the 36% of people who thought he was qualified, and joke that they watch professional wrestling, but most are probably just hardcore partisan Republicans, unable to admit that they are voting for an unqualified hack.  Either that, or hardcore Rand-ians.  (And, probably a few who watch wrestling...).  The point, though, is that most voters got the right answer!

There's really not much more to say here yet.  Trump is incompetent and unqualified.  By a two-to-one margin, voters knew it.  So, competence and honesty.  Valence is worthless, right?

Not so fast.  Elections are about comparisons.  We've still got Clinton, and we've got policy.  The whole point of this is the question of how two candidates compare when we consider both policy and valence.  More to come...

Monday, December 26, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part VII: The mythology of the Rand-ian superhero

Continuing with the concept of "valence," remember that we also supposedly want candidates, regardless of their policy positions, to be competent.  As I said in Part IV when I introduced the concept, I am skeptical of its application to legislative elections, but we are talking about a presidential election.  We need a competent executive.

This is where things get interesting from the political science perspective.  In math jargon, the valence "dimension" is supposed to be "orthogonal" to the liberal-conservative "dimension."  Huh?  Basically, that means one thing's supposed ta' gots nothin' to do with ta' other.  And yet, there is a fascinating tendency among right-leaning political types to act as though CEOS and other business leaders are omni-competent, Ayn Rand-ian superheroes, who can solve any problem.

Trump's administration will be a sort of test of this proposition, between himself and his cabinet picks.  We actually have no prior data on the matter.  Every past president has had either prior political or military experience.  So, we have no empirical basis to predict what happens in an administration where nobody at the top has any governmental experience.

We do have a record of inexperienced candidates running for Congress!  I referenced them way back in Part II!  (See, this is all going to connect...)  They all claim they will go to Congress and bust up the joint.  The vast, vast, vast majority lose.  The few who win?  They get to Congress and find that as first term-ers, they can't do jack fucking shit.  They either don't stick around very long, or get institutionalized.  Most accomplish nothing anyway.  Not very promising for the outsiders.

Still, they aren't CEOs, so that doesn't give us any information on the Rand-ian superhero theory.  This is a test.

The problem, of course, is that even if the Rand-ian superhero theory held up, Trump is still mostly a moron.  If you are bothering to read this pretentious, little blog, you probably know that the real sources of his income are not his deal-making skills, but investing his multi-million dollar inheritance from the 70s, combined with licensing his name to slap on other peoples' buildings and self-promotion through things like his TV shows.  The best analogy I can make is that he is to business as Hulk Hogan is to martial arts: great at bragging about how great he is at it (sorry if my references are out of date).  He has turned that bragging skill into real money, in a turn of perfect circularity, and his association with professional wrestling makes the analogy perhaps too on-the-nose, but there it is.  People pay him money because he is great at bragging about how rich he is.  That was the Trump University scam too.  Great work if you can get it...

Then there's actual, serious policy.  A few weeks ago, Thomas Schelling died.  He was the Nobel Prize-winning author of The Strategy of Conflict, which is among my favorite books ever written.  You are not an educated person until you have read it.  Nobody should be allowed into the Oval Office without having read it.  Nobody should be allowed anywhere near the nuclear football without having read it.  (PS: the nuclear football isn't what you think it is).  The book explains the nature of nuclear deterrence.

The single most vital task a president must perform is to manage the most dangerous arsenal in the history of the world.  The president is charged with the task of managing an array of weapons that can literally destroy all of humanity, and I hate when people misuse the word, "literally."  Nuclear weapons are a deterrent.  Use them recklessly as a first-strike weapon and the best case scenario is that you destabilize the global political and economic structure.  Worst case scenario is the end of everything.

Donald Trump is too fucking stupid to understand this.



Thomas Schelling died of a lethal dose of irony on December 13, 2016.

And we aren't even close to done in this series.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Oh, and bah, humbug!

Gaze in horror!  Gouge out your eyes from the trauma!  Why do I do this?  Because I must ruin everything.  Bah, humbug!


Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part VI: How transparent are Trump's lies?

In Part V, we finally got around to the... blindingly (?) obvious point that Trump is a liar.  Or is it blindingly obvious?  That's kind of my point here.  Political science models of elections distinguish between candidates' policy positions along the left-right dimension, and their "valence" characteristics, which are the traits that voters want intrinsically, like competence and honesty, but of course, the point of dishonesty is that if you lie, people aren't supposed to be able to tell.

Can you spot a liar?  Most people probably think they are pretty sophisticated, but it isn't possible for a majority of the population to be above the median, by definition.  There is an old finding in psychology, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.  Essentially, incompetent people are too incompetent to assess their own incompetence, and hence they think they are competent.

That's an interesting issue in these valence models.  Will voters accurately assess where the candidates are on the valence dimension?  There's a bunch of interesting research done by Walter Stone and various colleagues asking political experts to rate candidates on various traits based on the premise that experts, rather than voters, will give better assessments, but that leaves voters in an interesting position.

Particularly when faced with a liar like Trump.  How obvious was he?  If you are reading this blog, you probably thought he was obvious all along.  Not so for everyone.

Back in Part III, I made reference to a couple of cons: the Nigerian Prince email scam, and an elaborate con from Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  Only a real rube would fall for the former, but a not-too-stupid person could fall for the latter.  Where does Trump University fall?  I'd argue the former.

But let's also remember that only a few people fell for the scam itself.  And, it is easy for me to laugh at the people who did, and then filed their class action lawsuit.  Really, it was an obvious scam.  But, Trump really did commit fraud, and we have laws about that.

And here's where things get electorally relevant.  Trump then took money from the Trump Foundation "charity"-- a fake charity that he shut down yesterday, and used it to bribe Pam Bondi, the Florida State Attorney General, to shut down a criminal investigation, which she did.  He then insisted that he would never settle the civil case (the one with Judge Curiel) because only guilty people settled, asked for it to be postponed until after the election, and settled immediately after the election for $25 million.  He's a fucking fraud, and he bribed the Florida State Attorney General with money from a fake charity to get out of her sights.

Now, did you know about this?  Maybe.  You are reading a political scientist's blog.  Did the electorate?  Most of them?  Nope.  This kind of stuff didn't get a lot of coverage.  The media, whom Trump hated so much, did him a lot of favors by spending so much time on Clinton's bullshit email pseudo-scandal, and so little time on the Trump University actual fraud that most voters just never heard about Pam Bondi.

From the voters' perspective, then, they can't be blamed for not taking it into account!

Then, though, there are claims like the one that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.  How stupid do you have to be to believe that?  Oh, stupid enough to believe in any Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, or moon landing conspiracy theory, or... I don't know, the virgin birth!  (See what I did there?).  Want a citation?  Goertzle's 1994 article, "Belief In Conspiracy Theories" demonstrates that the vast majority of people believe at least one incredibly stupid conspiracy theory.  Most people are disturbingly credulous.

But, of course, we can't talk about Trump's political lies without talking about the one that got him started.  Birtherism.  This one doesn't come out of nowhere.  It's about race.  Simple demonstration:  From the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, using post-stratification weights.  Among those who "strongly agree" that the past legacy of slavery makes it harder for African-Americans to succeed today, 79% said that Obama was "definitely" born in the US.  Among those who "strongly disagreed," 27.7% said he was "definitely" born in the US.  If anyone wants more details on the numbers, I can go into them, but birtherism is about race.  So, it isn't that people couldn't spot Trump's lies there-- it is that people didn't want to spot Trump's lies.  His lies gave people comfort.

So, voters had three separate problems when it came to spotting Trump's lies.  First, the media actually did a terrible job pointing out just how dishonest he was.  Second, people really are very stupid, and far more likely to believe implausible things than they should.  Finally, people are prone to accept stupid things that give them comfort.

All of that makes it difficult for voters to form an accurate assessment of a candidate's honesty.  Particularly in Trump's case.

And we haven't even gotten to Trump's competence yet!  There's a whole, other valence characteristic!  Stay tuned!

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part V: Trump's honesty

In Part IV, we introduced the concept of "valence" characteristics, in which it becomes rational for voters to vote for ideologically distant candidates if the closer candidate has a low "valence" score.  There are two main "valence" traits that political scientists generally discuss: honesty and competence.  So, yeah, let's start with honesty.

Stop laughing, we've gotta get through this.

Yeah.

Um.

Yeah.

It's hard to know how to start this.  I have my issues with PolitiFact, but it is a starting point.  They have this graduated scale bullshit, where they rate statements on a six-point scale from "true" to "pants on fire," and of the statements currently rated by Trump, 18% are currently rated "pants on fire," with 33% currently rated "false," and another 18% "mostly false."  That's a really, really bad record.  Why?  This is the guy who rose the political ladder by telling everyone that Obama was born in Kenya, and his campaign was no better, including such gems as the claim that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.  Trying to document all of Trump's lies is a futile endeavor, though, because by the time you debunk one, he's told 100 more that are even more egregious.

I'm a mathematician at heart, but quantitative measures simply can't do this justice.  The valence models referenced in yesterday's post require putting candidates for office on a common scale.  Trump can't be put on the same scale as other candidates.  He breaks the fucking scale when it comes to dishonesty.

Here's the problem, though.  So what?  Lying, in politics, is also a job skill.

For Trump, it is also a betrayal.  Consider the wall.  Trump promised to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and make them pay.  Bullshit.  He can't make them pay, and he probably knows it.  He lied.  To appeal for votes on the basis of a lie, well, now we're getting into that failure of democracy thing...  I did promise that, didn't I?

We could also talk about the promise to appoint a special prosecutor for Hillary Clinton, and leading chants of "lock her up."  What ever happened to that?  Oh yeah, that was just bullshit too.  And he has already admitted that.

A functioning electoral system requires that candidates make and at least attempt to keep their promises.  Candidates who are simply pathological liars, though, disrupt that process.  They cannot be trusted to keep their promises, so their promises should be disregarded.

I guess that leads to the next question, which is about voters' capacity to assess valence characteristics, like honesty, right?  Coming soon...

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

Friday, December 23, 2016

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



Technically, Oscar Peterson was Canadian.  Sue me.

(Don't sue me).

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part IV: In Valence's name...

In Part III, we talked about cons.  Obvious cons, elaborate cons, and how stupid a person has to be to be taken in by them.  Why?  Oh, no reason...  Not relevant at all to the 2016 election.

Where I'm going with this is something I addressed back in May: the concept of "valence."  In formal models of elections, we like to write out equations for everyone's preferences.  Imagine a single policy dimension:  the left-right dimension.  On the far left, you've got the Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein contingent (we call them "moonbats"), and on the far right, you've got the Ted Cruz/Mike Lee contingent (known as the "wingnuts").  We can assign a number to a voter's preference along that dimension, called an "ideal point," and the closer a voter is to that ideal point, the happier the voter is.  By how much?  That depends on how you write the equation.  In jargon, we write the equation such that the "utility function" is "single-peaked" and "symmetric."  That means having only one ideal point, and the further away from that ideal point the voter gets, the less happy the voter is, but direction doesn't matter.  Five points to the left is just as bad as five points to the right.  Think Goldilocks, but for liberalism/conservatism.

Problem:  there is a lot more to being in public office than just the liberal-conservative dimension.  Many years ago, Donald Stokes wrote a paper about "valence" issues, which are issues about which people agree about the goal, but disagree about how to get there, or who can get us there.  Example:  a good economy.  Game theorists took Stokes's little idea and created "the valence dimension" to add into their models.  So, candidates for office don't just have policy positions, where Ted Cruz is way to the right and Bernie Sanders is way to the left.  They also have a score along the "valence" dimension.

What is this "valence" dimension?  It's sugar and spice and everything nice.  It is good stuff.  Traits that we want everyone to have.  I have my criticisms of how it is used in legislative elections, but we're talking about a presidential election, so let's just go with it.

There are two canonical valence traits:  competence and honesty.  More competence, ceteris paribus, is good.  More honesty, ceteris paribus, is good.

So, rather than simply wanting a specific amount of competence or honesty, voters just want more and more and more, the greedy bastards.  In math jargon, they have "monotonically increasing" preferences over these traits.  So, in addition to wanting policy as close as possible to their ideal points, they also want a candidate with as much valence as possible.

How does the math work out, then?  When faced with an ideologically distant but competent and honest candidate versus an ideologically proximate but dishonest fuckwit, the rational thing to do is often to vote for the former.  That's the point of the valence models.  That's why the models were created.  Why?  Ideological positions are, by definition, contestable and debatable.  How much objective damage can be done by widespread corruption?  How much objective damage can be done by true incompetence?

Doesn't that kind of depend on a bunch of stuff?  I guess we've got more to cover!

In the meantime, um, here's Walter White...

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part III: The politics of failure

As we meander our way through the democratic failure of the 2016 presidential election, we come to a question that I have gotten in several conversations recently, and during a public talk yesterday.  What is a failure of democracy?

We can distinguish between two types of failures.  First, there is a failure of democratic institutions, by which I mean a failure of our formal mechanisms to conduct the election according to the law and count the votes appropriately.  By that standard, the 2000 election was a democratic failure.  The study I always cite is this one, showing that if every vote had been counted as intended, Gore would have won Florida, and hence the presidency, but that the "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach County threw enough votes from Gore to Pat Buchanan that Bush won the state, and hence the presidency.  That is a failure of democratic institutions.

Batshit crazy conspiracy theories from "computer scientists" aside, that didn't happen in 2016.  Trump won according to the rules of the game.  When I write about democratic failures, I am writing about a failure of the basic, philosophical underpinnings of democracy.  As I asked in Part II, are ordinary citizens competent to make decisions?  The framers were skeptical...  We'll get to the notion of competence in a more thorough way, but let's be round-about, because I'm enjoying my coffee this morning.

Some cons are elaborate, and an intelligent person could be taken in by them.  There will soon be a TV series based on Neil Gaiman's American Gods.  Good book.  In it, the character, "Wednesday," describes his favorite out-of-date con to our protagonist, Shadow, as follows.  A guy dressed as a priest tries to buy an expensive piece of jewelry with some crisp, new $100 bills, with some ink smudges.  The jeweler takes the bills to the bank to get them checked out.  The bank says they're real, and they are.  The smudges are added for effect.  The transaction takes place.  Shortly thereafter, a cop hauls the fake priest into the jeweler's store to inquire what happened.  The cop insists that the bills are fake and that the priest is the best counterfeiter in the land.  The cop is a co-conspirator who confiscates the bills and the jewelry as evidence, and leaves with the "arrested" priest.  They go off together with the jewelry and the money, which was theirs to begin with.  Cool con, right?  And you can see how it could work, in an earlier, cash-based era, on even a not-too-stupid person.  Today, someone really should know that the feds deal with counterfeiters, but, hey, in a different era?  Maybe someone not-too-stupid could fall for it.

Then, there's the Nigerian prince email scam.  You've seen this one.  Why does this keep going around?  Here's the thing about it.  The scam is so obvious that the point of the obviousness is to filter out anyone who has even the vaguest hint of sentience.  Anyone who responds to the email is a fucking moron.  But, the scam is so obviously a scam anyway that if the email were less obvious, people would figure it out at the next stage anyway.  So, just filter out everyone who isn't a total nincompoop at the first step and the scammers save themselves the time of having to respond to emails from people who aren't going to be stupid enough to give out their bank account numbers!

My point is that there is variation in the obviousness of a scam.  To be taken in by Wednesday's favorite scam from American Gods doesn't make you the absolute dumbest creature ever to crawl the earth.  To be taken in by the Nigerian prince email scam does.

Democracy, at a philosophical level, requires people not to be taken in by scams.  And the framers were nervous about voters' capacities.  House, Senate, Presidency, Supreme Court.  Of those four (and voters don't even know that two of them are part of the same branch!), how many were intended to be directly elected?  One.  Why?  Because the framers basically thought that voters were fickle and thoughtless.  The House of Representatives, the framers thought, would be overly responsive to the whims of the public, but the Senate, with longer terms of office, and having been selected, not by the voters, but by state legislatures, would serve as the "saucer" to cool the coffee (hey, see what I did there?) of the legislatively overactive House.  Yeah, not so overactive these days, but you get the point.  The point is that the framers simply didn't trust the voters not to make stupid mistakes.

And they weren't even thinking of scam artists.  Join us for Part IV when we discuss the mathematics of scams!  Yes, really!  Wait, come back.  Math!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part II: The data we have

Welcome back for Part II in what Trump's victory means for "democracy," whatever that poorly-defined term means.  In Part I, we discussed biology!  And a silly, little game called Ursuppe.  The basic point was that you can't assess a system without sufficient data.  So, let's get to the meat of the matter.

The core challenge for democracy is the following question: are ordinary citizens competent to make decisions, either about policy directly, or about who makes policy decisions?

James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and the rest were very skeptical about that, and we'll get to that soon enough.  (If I were planning this out more carefully, I'd have done that first, but I write these posts during rather than after my morning coffee).  Figuring out how often the public screws up, though, requires deciding how much data we have, and how much we have for alternative systems by way of comparison.

Now, linguistics diatribe.  Data: plural.  Datum: singular.  Data are.  Fuck you, Randall Munroe.

Anyway, how much data do we have on elections to assess citizen competence?  Let's focus on the U.S.  Shining light, beacon, blah, blah, blah.  Do we count anything before women's suffrage?  It probably wouldn't have changed any result, but in terms of legitimacy, yeah, kind of an issue.  Then there's that whole race/slavery thing.  Do we count pre-15th Amendment elections?  Oh, and the 15th Amendment wasn't actually enforced before the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and even then, enforcement was a gradual process.  (We could talk about Shelby County, but c'mon, we don't have lynchings anymore).

OK, so does that mean we don't get to count any presidential election before 1968 on the grounds that too many people were disenfranchised?  That means we've got 12 presidential elections to evaluate.  Small data set.

OK, so let's expand the data set.  Let's throw in congressional elections, and other sub-national elections.  Lots more data there!  Here's the catch.  People know less about those elections.  What does that mean for democratic competence?  We'll get to that in future posts!

Then the problem is about comparisons.  To what do we compare our data set?  Communist party systems?  Easily managed, but a small data set too.  Fortunately, those systems all sucked pretty hard, so we know where that comparison goes.  Beyond that, there are so many odd variations of systems that have passed into the dustbin of history, many with poor record-keeping, that we have a different data problem.  Suppose you want a complete, or at least random sample of princely states with mercantilist systems.  How could you possibly generate your data set to evaluate the princes for their basic competence to see if they were fucking idiots or psychopaths on a Trump level or worse?  See the problem?  If we have a 1/12 chance of putting a Trump in power with our system, we outperform other systems if those systems put Trump-style nitwits in power with higher probabilities, but we can't know that unless we can generate data sets to figure out those chances, and we don't even have a good way of saying that our chances are 1 in 12 because that requires making a definitive statement about throwing out everything pre-1968.

This is a data problem.  A messy one.  Stay tuned, we've got plenty more, because Trump does nothing if not create messes for social scientists to address!  (Well, he also grabs pussies...)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part I: Data requirements

Time for yet another multi-part series.  Why?  I have nothing to say about the Turkey/Russia thing, nothing else is happening in American politics now that the idiotic "Hamilton elector" thing is a-bust, and this will keep me occupied for a few mornings.

Trump won.  How do we assess democracy now that this... person is going to have nuclear weapons?  It is a more complicated question than you might think.  Let's start with the data requirements, by way of analogy.

In evolutionary terms, some critters are just real success stories.  Sharks.  Sharks just work.  They've been around for millions and millions and millions of years, and the basic, core structure is so adaptable that they can serve any marine niche.  They've outlasted everything, and they'll outlast us.  In evolutionary terms, that's what success means.  They last.  They successfully reproduce, and get their offspring to reproduce and do so in such a way that they are still recognizable as the same basic critters as the fossils we find from millions and millions of years ago because those things from millions of years ago worked.  The adaptations needed were minor, relatively speaking.

There are also plenty of extinct critters.  Some lasted for a long time.  Dinosaurs.  Some didn't.  Wooly mammoths.  Reasons for their extinctions?  Many and varied.

And then there's us.  We have only been around for, what, 100,000 years?  200,000?  Somewhere in that neighborhood.  We're smart.  Comparatively.  Is that an evolutionarily good thing?

A few years ago, I found myself playing a game called Ursuppe.  (Later marketed in English as "Primordial Soup.")  In the game, you get to be an amoeba, moving around a board, evolving.  You get cards with evolutionary traits, like movement abilities, and attacks.  One trait was intelligence.  It was listed as "completely useless."

And in evolutionary terms, the jury is still out on that.  We are a young species, and already capable of wiping ourselves off the planet in a variety of ways.  Should we do so, we become one of those many evolutionary dead ends, like the predators that drive themselves into extinction by eating all of their prey too quickly.

Sharks will still be here, though.

Democracy, in anything like we know it, is a young form of government.  The country is not collapsing.  But, democracy failed here, and there could be dire consequences.  How do we assess that?  Coming soon in Part II...

Monday, December 19, 2016

Faithless electors aren't worth your respect

The electoral college votes today.  Some Republican electors will probably refuse to vote for Donald Trump on the-- as it turns out, correct-- view that he is historically unfit for office.  If this were part of a realistic effort to deny Trump the presidency and give the office to someone qualified, faithless electors (Hamilton electors, or whatever you want to call them) would deserve your respect.  That's not what they are.  They are precious little fucking snowflakes who have decided, way too late, that Donald Trump shouldn't be president.  Where were they during the primaries or... the general election?  Oh, yeah, that happened too.

There are certain voters who insist that they can't vote for candidates unless those candidates absolutely, perfectly reflect every fiber of their being.  Every policy position must be perfect, and every speech must perfectly intone the right values.  Otherwise, our precious little fucking snowflakes are somehow sullying themselves by voting for the imperfect candidate.  Such people fall in love with candidates like either Ted Cruz on the right, or Bernie Sanders on the left, eventually wind up voting for Ralph Nader or Jill Stein and hand the presidency to the party they hate, and feel great about maintaining their purity.  Precious little fucking snowflakes.

Being a political scientist generally means being an institutionalist and liking political parties.

Anywho (why do I love typing that when I never say it out loud?), there are over 300,000,000 people in this country.  Elections are about compromise.  You don't get your perfect candidate.

If any Republican elector casts a vote against Donald Trump, we have to ask: what did that elector do-- really do-- to stop Trump in the primaries?  The general?  An election is a choice.  There were two of 'em.  It's too late now.  Throw this thing to the House of Representatives and they still put Trump in the White House.  Any electors who cast faithless votes now are just trying to ease a guilty conscience for not having done what they should have done earlier.

Precious little fucking snowflakes.  Too little, too late.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Don't overestimate the effects of Trump's Israel ambassador

Trump will name David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel.  Friedman is probably to the right of Netanyahu.  What does that mean?  Not much.  Some of Trump's picks matter.  Picking Sessions as AG matters a lot.  This one?  Not so much.

During the campaign, one of the more ridiculous fallacies Trump perpetuated was the notion that everything bad that has ever happened in the last 30 years happened because Hillary Clinton didn't stop it.  Cuz', ya' know, as First Lady of Arkansas, she ran the fuckin' universe.  Even if we limit it to her four year stint as Secretary of State, US diplomats don't run the show.  Bad things happen, and there is little we can do to stop it.  That's even more true for ambassadors.

So, time for some good, old-fashioned social science jargon.  The "counter-factual."  As in, counter to fact.  As in, bullshit.  What if the world had been otherwise?  What if Trump made a different pick?  Would there be peace?  Or, less fighting?  I wouldn't bet on it.  One way or another, the Palestinians would never believe that the US is anything other than on the Israeli side, so we could never broker a real truce.  Why?  Because we are on the Israeli side.  Why?  A topic for another post, but it isn't the money, or "the Israel lobby," which is code for "the Jews and their filthy, filthy money."

Anyway, here is where things might get interesting for the Trump camp.  What happens when the antisemitic alt-right comes into conflict with the pro-Israel evangelicals?  The Trump coalition may not be stable...

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

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What now on Russia and their meddling?

Even Trump supporter #1 James Comey now admits that Russia was trying to help elect Donald Trump.  What now?   Obama has promised retaliation, but sorry liberals.  Obama has no spine.  What do you think he will do?  I am reminded of an old Robin Williams joke about British cops.



Britain has a lower crime rate, and there is a complicated, dynamic relationship between the militarization of the police and violent crime, but be honest.  When some heavily armed psycho is on the loose, do you want the British cops after them, or American SWAT teams?

What could we do to Russia?  Not much, unless we are willing to get our hands dirty.  Revealing secrets only matters to people with a conscience, and, well... Putin.  You can't meddle in elections unless elections matter.  Everything in Russia really is rigged.  Economic meddling?  With oil prices low, their economy is in bad shape anyway.  Military action?  Off the table.  Other forms of cyber warfare, like trying to collapse some of their banks or markets?  Too much spill-over.  Targeted cyber attacks?  Way too hard.  What does that leave?  We don't have the balls for assassination, or anything like that, and is anyone even going to argue for that as retaliation for hacked emails?  No.

So, what are we going to do?  We're going to say "stop."  Or we'll say "stop again."

And in January, Trump will say "thank you," owe Putin a favor (even though the hacks probably played a very minor role), and give his idol anything that is requested.

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

Friday, December 16, 2016

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

Fetal burial laws, abortion and constitutional interpretation

Those Texas fetal burial rules are fascinating, and they are motivated by the constitutional interpretation philosophy favored by liberals.  Fun, right?

Abortion, as an ideological issue, makes no sense.  Is a fetus/embryo/whatever a human life?  If so, then abortion is murder.  If so, then abortion should not be legal.  Thus, whether or not abortion should be permissible depends on when human life begins.

What is ideology?  According to Phil Converse, who wrote the most cited article on public opinion, "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," an ideology is a set of connections between issue positions.  To be liberal is to hold a set of liberal positions across issues, and to be conservative is to hold conservative positions across issues.  So, why the hell should one's belief about the propriety of economic redistribution have anything to do with one's belief about when human life begins?

Logically, it shouldn't, and that demonstrates one of Converse's most important points.  Not all "constraints," in Converse's terminology, are logical constraints.  Many are social constructions.  For a variety of reasons, we have socially constructed ideology such that liberalism means supporting redistribution and abortion rights and conservatism means opposing redistribution and opposing abortion.

Constitutionally, though, what is the basis for saying that abortion is a constitutional right?  There's the rub.  Those who identify as "liberal" also tend to say that they think the Constitution is a "living document!"  It changes with the times and culture!  Therefore, we must interpret it in different ways over time.  So, no, the Constitution never mentions abortion, and the framers would have opposed it, but we are a different culture now!

Every supposed philosophy of constitutional interpretation will quickly collapse under the weight of its own bullshit if given any scrutiny, but that's not the point.  The point today is the Texas fetal burial law.  What's going on there?

How does one evaluate culture and thereby the "living document" of the Constitution?  Well, if we, as a culture, are burying each fetus from an abortion or miscarriage, doesn't that say something about how we, as a culture, have come to view the beginning of life?

This is why such laws are constitutionally important.  If they exist, their existence is evidence of cultural views on when life begins, and that is important for how we take the vitals on that "living document."

Note that such laws wouldn't carry constitutional weight for any other philosophy.  Cultural standards don't matter to "strict constructionists," so you can't pull this crap on them!

This is a "live by the sword, die by the sword" type of thing.  If rights are not fixed, then they can disappear as well as appear.  That is the flip side of the "living document" philosophy.  Of course, liberals would rather just pass a constitutional amendment stating a right to an abortion in plain text to avoid this kind of stuff, but that ain't gonna happen.

Incidentally, anybody check Ruth Bader Ginsberg's vitals lately?  I find it fascinating how much liberals still love her even though she was too stupid and arrogant to step down when it would have been a lock for Obama to replace her.  The odds of her living through four years?  Low.  Maybe she could get through two and hope for the Democrats to retake the Senate in 2018, with Schumer blockading the Supreme Court the way McConnell did, but the Democrats probably don't have the balls for that.  Face it, liberals.  Ginsberg was an arrogant fool for not stepping down when Obama could have named a successor.  Just an aside...

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On "Hamilton electors"

When the electoral college votes, Donald Trump will almost certainly receive a majority, although there is now a discussion of whether or not electors should break from the voters and do as Hamilton suggested in Federalist 68-- not give the presidency to an idiot psychopathic child who is unfit for office.  A few points:

1)  Trump is manifestly unfit for office.  They still won't stop him.  Remember the Republican nomination contest?  Remember the lead-up to the convention?  Think of all of the times that Republicans refused to do anything to stop him.  You think they'll do anything now when it would be even more dangerous to democracy?

2)  Legitimacy is as it is perceived.  Trump won.  He did it with a big assist from James Comey, a little bit of help from Putin (although I'm more skeptical that the hacks did much), and a hell of a lot of luck, but he won.  To steal the election from him would be perceived as illegitimate, and tear down the basis of the electoral system.  What are you willing to lose to stop Trump?  Of course, the question isn't, "what are you willing to lose," but, "what are the electors willing to lose," and whether or not they think they need to lose anything...

3)  No, the popular vote doesn't matter.  Do I really have to keep on about this?  There is no such thing as "the popular vote".  Stop whining about it.  Stop looking at the fake number.  It doesn't exist.  It is like the "score" in a game of chess.  There are no points in chess.  There is only checkmate or stalemate.  (Or time running out, or you can limit the number of moves, or fine, fuck off, you get the point).

4)  Even if enough electors defected in the EC to deny Trump a majority, it just goes to the House of Representatives, and they give the presidency to Trump.

Trump won.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Keeping the Russia hacks in perspective

Yes, Russia hacked the DNC in order to influence the election.  Yes, Putin wanted Trump to win.  Trump won.

Time for some Latin.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  After this, therefore because of this.  It is a famous logical fallacy in which one attributes causation to a prior event simply because of its time order.  Don't do that.

To be fair, there is more than time order going on.  Putin really did want Trump to win, but let's keep this more grounded.  The Russia hacks did basically two things.  They created some bad press at the start of the Democratic Convention, leading to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz's resignation (yay!), and riling up the Bernie twits.  Let's take them separately.

DWS was a vile sack of shit who needed to go.  The DNC was supposed to remain neutral, and she clearly sided with Clinton.  Also, she was just a piece of work, and always has been.  What did she do to intervene, though?  Basically, nothing.  Take away DWS, install and DNC head who was more Sanders-friendly, and Clinton still would have won, but DWS was still a scumbag who needed to go.  The Russia hacks made that happen.

The bigger problem for Clinton, though, was that this helped create the impression that the scales were tilted for Clinton, playing into that whiny, little twit, Sanders' nonsense about how everything was rigged.  Oh, you thought that was just Trump?  Nope.  Sanders got there first.  When Clinton won the Southern states, Sanders whined about how they shouldn't count because those where Republican states, and only Democratic voters should decide the Democratic nomination.  The system is rigged!  When he started doing better in open primaries, everyone should participate, not just Democrats!  The system is rigged!

Oh, did you forget what a whiny little fuck Sanders is, and how much he pulled that shit about rigged elections?  Not me...

And that's what the Russia hacks might have emphasized-- the bullshit complaints of Sanders supporters who thought everything was rigged against them because the DNC bigwigs clearly did favor Clinton.

But they were disgruntled anyway!  So, the question-- and this is a big question-- is whether or not the Russia hacks played a big enough role disgruntling easily manipulated Sanders voters to turn them off, swinging a close election.  Could it have had that big an effect?  Maaaaaaybe, but I doubt it.

But if it did, Sanders made it possible.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

On the Secretary of State selection process

It looks like Trump really is picking Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State.  A few thoughts.

1)  I've been arguing that Trump wanted to torture Romney by dragging this out even though he had no intention of picking The Mittster.  Tillerson was added to the list late in the process.  Possibility a)  Tillerson was the beneficiary of Trump's desire to torture Romney, and if Trump had made a snap decision for a non-Romney, it wouldn't have been him.  Possibility b) Romney really was being considered.  Obviously, I'd bet on a.

2)  Interesting that Giuliani got nothing.  Stories leaking out are that Trump doesn't like it when someone campaigns too hard, too openly for a position.  Fascinating since he loves his sycophants...

3)  The optics are bad here for the Russia hack issues, but let's be realistic.  Trump is not checking his decisions with Putin.  Tillerson is cozy with Putin, and that may have been a bonus point in his favor since Trump has a big, old man crush on Vlady, but the fact that he is a CEO rather than a politician fits in with Trump's pattern so far.  Let's take it on these terms.  Suppose you didn't know about Tillerson's ties to Putin.  Would you have bet on him or Romney to get the Sec. State nod?  That's what I thought...

4)  It will be absolutely hi-larious if Trump faces a revolt in the Senate over this, since McConnell has now joined the chorus demanding an investigation into Russia's attempts to sway the election towards Trump.  Likely?  No.  But, this will be a rougher hearing than Trump would like, and I wouldn't put a confirmation chance at 100%.

5)  What happens if Tillerson actually does divest all assets in order to get through a confirmation hearing, and Trump still refuses to do so?  Legally, nothing, but the politics get ever more tricky.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Partisanship at the FBI and the CIA

We have now learned that while the CIA is pretty much completely satisfied that Russia was actively trying to elect Trump, the FBI didn't want to go that far in their assessments as they were actively trying to elect Trump.  Let's also remember that, prior to the election, Comey didn't want to admit publicly that Russia was even involved in the DNC hacks for fear of influencing the election.  On the other hand, he did want to make that announcement about the Abedin computer, cuz' that was important to announce 12 days before the election in violation of DoJ policy...

This tells us something interesting.  The FBI and the CIA have never really gotten along.  Prior to 9/11, one of the storylines was that if only they had shared information, maybe it would have been stopped.  Woulda, coulda, shoulda...  Part of the inter-agency tension is a basic turf-war.  The FBI's mission is to operate on US soil, and the CIA operates abroad.  Problems ensue when things cross borders, as things, people and information are wont to do.

The 2016 election, though, laid bare the partisan leanings of the FBI, which has a fascinating history anyway.  Never before have we seen the FBI take such an active, public role attempting to sway the election.  CIA agents, though, are not typically a bunch of Democrats.  So, what's going on?  Some thoughts.

1)  It's not party-- it is the Clintons.  The FBI just hates the Clintons specifically, and the CIA just acted normally.

2)  The CIA thinks internationally, and the FBI thinks domestically.  Thus, the CIA cares more about Russian involvement in US elections and opposing that involvement.  The FBI allows domestic partisan and political concerns to override that, paradoxically putting them on the same side as Russia.  How the hell am I typing this?  Let me check this-- yes, the CIA says Russia was working to elect Trump, and Comey broke DoJ rules to "reopen" a bullshit investigation 12 days before an election over something that was obviously nothing, but would hurt Clinton.  Yup.  The FBI and Russia were working towards the same goal (but not together).  Holy shit.  No, pizzagate isn't real, though.  Fuck, this is the world we live in...

3)  Perhaps the CIA really does have a bias towards conclusiveness.  With a lot of the data being classified, we have a hard time knowing if they really did jump to conclusions...

4)  Did the CIA actually share all of their information with the FBI?  They don't tend to do that...

Weird stuff.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

On running government like a business

One of the standard lines among Republican politicians for a long time is that government should be run like a business.  Trump is now President-elect.  He has no political experience.  He only has business experience, with his success coming primarily as a show business personality.  He is staffing his cabinet with business executives, including possibly Rex Tillerson from Exxon as Secretary of State (sorry, Charlie Brown, I mean, Mitt Romney...).

This is what we call, in political science, an "experiment."  What happens when we put business executives in charge of government?

Let's make sure to be realistic about what an executive branch can do.  There is more downside than upside.  An executive branch that is well-run cannot give us long-term, stable 4-5% economic growth.  When you hear unrealistic growth projections and promises, be they from Trump or Sanders (and both gave us economic plans based on such nonsense), they are just plain bullshit.  Presidents and cabinets just can't do that.  Developing countries can sustain higher levels of growth because they are building infrastructure at a faster pace.  We have already built a lot of infrastructure.  We could repair what we have, but that's not the same rate of growth.  So, no, an executive branch, no matter who is in charge, can't give you 4-5% growth.

However, an incompetent executive branch can do a lot of stupid stuff.  Most importantly, if there is a crisis, they can react badly.  The presumption of the "run government like a business" crowd is that knowing how to turn a profit is the same thing as understanding economic policy.  If so, then when faced with a crisis, an executive branch filled with executives will implement policies that will stave off catastrophe.

Consider the 2007-8 economic collapse.  It could have been a hell of a lot worse.  How much worse?  How about The Great Depression?  The wrong choices could have led there...

Of course, Hank Paulson was involved in decisions to head off another Great Depression, and you know what he did before becoming Treasury Secretary?  Goldman Sachs.

This will be interesting.

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

This is not quite bluegrass.  String Cheese Incident is one of those hippy jam band type groups that came around in the '90s, mixing bluegrass with rock, jazz and other stuff, but guitarist Bill Nershi and mandolinist Michael Kang really do know bluegrass.  Today, though, we honor the passing of Dave Brubeck;)  This piece is way overplayed, but give credit where credit is due.  Prior to 1959, jazz was stuck in a rut of time signatures.  Basically, all they knew was 4/4.  Brubeck came out with an album called Time Out in 1959 that threw out all the rules, and made everyone realize that there was a wide array of possibilities.  Unfortunately, this piece is the only one anyone remembers.  The rest of the album is even more wild and brilliant (my favorite is Blue Rondo a la Turk), but at least this caught on, and the rest of the jazz world paid attention.  Without people like Brubeck to break the rules on time signatures, experimental styles like M-BASE wouldn't exist.  No Brubeck, no M-BASE.

1959 was an amazing year for jazz.  Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.  Charles Mingus' Mingus Ah Um.  Horace Silver's Blowin' the Blues Away.  I could keep going, but really, 1959!  The year for jazz.  So, here's a vaguely bluegrass-ish tribute to Dave Brubeck.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Tension between Trump and executive branch agencies

Two stories provide an interesting picture of what may happen between Trump and executive branch agencies.  The Bloomberg story about ferreting out anyone working on climate change, and Question 27 on this document suggest the obvious tension between a Republican administration and EPA employees, as well as Energy Department employees working on climate policy, but that is normal.  What is not normal is the likely tension between Trump, the CIA and other intelligence agencies because Trump is still denying that Russia had anything to do with the DNC hacks or any involvement in trying to help him get elected, and he is harshly criticizing the CIA for their reports.  He is simply asserting that they are the same people who got the Iraq weapons reports wrong.

Um, not quite.  First, the Iraq reports were written by separate people within the intelligence agencies than the computer people.  The head of the CIA during the lead-up to the Iraq war was George Tenet, who is long gone.  Much of the analysis of the Russia hacks was probably done by the NSA as well, not the CIA.  The NSA had nothing to do with Iraq, though, because that's just not their thing.  So, no.  Not the same people.  Not the same analysts, and not the same heads.  Then, there was the fact that the Bush administration distorted reports over, for example, the aluminum tubes and the supposed uranium from Niger...  No.  Let's call bullshit on this.

Executive branch tensions are normal.  EPA employees are bound to be in tension with Republican presidents, and CIA employees are bound to be in tension with Democratic presidents because of general ideological dispositions.  What is not normal is for the CIA to have this kind of tension with a Republican president, much less to start with it.

And normally, these tensions are mitigated by civil service protections.  It is hard to fire an executive branch employee.  We generally don't want the full power of the executive branch to operate as the personal machinery of the president to avoid, well, just imagine.

Could that go away?  It would take legislation.  Would Trump like to eliminate it?  Absolutely.  His catch-phrase is "you're fired!"  It would have to overcome a Democratic filibuster in the Senate, though.  That would require the Senate Republicans to go nuclear in order to hand Donald Trump a hell of a lot of power.  Would they do it?  I'd bet against it.

Consider the select intelligence committees.  Their hearings are not public, obviously.  However, just imagine what those briefings are going to be.  With what Trump is saying now publicly, what do you think the CIA is going to say to Congress during hearings?  Back-channels matter, even if you don't see them.

Remember all those endorsements Trump got from Congress?  Yeah, me neither.  Paul Ryan is happy about the fact that he no longer has to worry about shutdowns, debt ceiling negotiations, etc.  McConnell too.  But, they don't want to hand Trump any more administrative power than they have to.

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

Sort of like a twangy Tom Waits, and not quite "country" to some, but, well...


Friday, December 9, 2016

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, you hate (the) America(s)

It was cold today.  I decided to play something from a warmer region on the drive into campus this morning.  Some Brazilian jazz.  Guitar virtuoso Bola Sete was best known for his work with Vince Guaraldi, who was best known for writing the theme from Peanuts.  Bola Sete's best work, though, was his solo work.  Here was the first track from the album I played today.  Yup.


Faithless electors and "representation"

Sorry, but "faithless electors" won't stop Donald Trump from assuming the Presidency.  A "faithless elector" is a member of the electoral college who refuses to vote how his or her state's voters instructed.  So far, one of Trump's electors has insisted that he won't vote for Trump.  Remember when the big deal was that pair of Bernie-worshipping idiots from Washington (state) who said they would never vote for Clinton in the EC?  Ah, good times, good times...

Anywho, a Trump elector won't vote for Trump.  Will there be any more?  Maybe, but not enough to stop him.  Should  there be?  Imagine the riots.  But, let's have some good, old-fashioned political science.

We distinguish between two concepts of representatives:  trustee representatives and delegate representatives.  Delegate representatives are supposed to carry out the wishes of the constituents mechanically, whatever those wishes are, and regardless of what the representative thinks of those wishes.  So, you want to declare war on Uruguay?  Fine.  Who am I to say "no?"

A trustee representative is supposed to do what he thinks is in the best interests of the constituents, regardless of what the constituents want.  No, we are not going to war with Uruguay, you fucking morons, because there is no reason to do so.  Also, I don't care if you people like federal highways.  We're privatizing the whole shebang, so that everything will be a toll road!  See what I did there?

You can see the philosophical divide.  And what does this have to do with faithless electors?  Everything.  Electors are selected by state.  If your state votes for Donald Trump, what should you do if you think he is an idiot child who shouldn't have control of nuclear weapons?

If you accept the trustee model of representation, you become a faithless elector, but if you accept a delegate model, you stick with Donny-boy.

And therein lies a real problem with the electoral college (as opposed to the bullshit).  Instead of just aggregating votes, we insert middlemen.  What purpose do the people in the electoral college serve?  Unless we accept the premise that they should, in some circumstances, act as trustees, they just create the potential for riots when they do so without our consent.  Otherwise, they serve no purpose.  Which, they basically don't.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

You can't buy a Senate seat, but cronyism can get you the SBA

Linda McMahon finally has that job in politics she has been wanting.  She has been an object lesson in something that Jennifer Steen tried to teach people years ago, but nobody wanted to hear.  And you had probably forgotten about her!

Back in 2010, when Republicans could only lose an election if they tried (and oh how they tried:  see O'Donnell, Christine), wrestling executive Linda McMahon tried to buy herself a Senate seat in Connecticut.  And I do mean "buy."  She's rich, thanks to a bunch of redneck fuckwits and children.  She spent a lot of her money in 2010 trying to buy that Connecticut Senate seat, and if the whiney little goo-goos* were correct in their assessment that elections simply went to the highest bidder, she would have won.  Nope!  Despite her money and the 2010 Republican wave, McMahon had about as much chance as a wrestler with the writers against her.

Now, I know what you're thinking.  New England!  Republican!  Excuse me, but Scott Brown had just won the Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election earlier that year.

But, McMahon is nothing if not persistent!  So, in 2012, she tried again.  And lost again.  Ha!

Which brings us to the research of Jennifer Steen.  Money is funny, and not just the counterfeit stuff.  Challengers in legislative elections seem to benefit more from it than incumbents.  Why?  Mainly, they need name recognition.  But, it only does you any good if you have a resume that voters are willing to accept.  Inexperienced candidates lose.  Period.  You know who self-funds their campaigns?  Inexperienced candidates (with money, obviously).  Why?  They can't get anyone else to give them money!

So, you're rich.  Even so, why would you spend your own money if you could spend someone else's?  That, in short, is why most self-financed candidates lose.  Go read Steen's book, and quit whining about rich people trying to buy elections.  They fail.

And then you forget about them!  Did you remember Linda McMahon?  Why did Trump?  That wrestling thing.  President Camacho was involved in the WWF for a while.  Were it not for that, nobody but campaign finance junkies would remember Linda McMahon, who will now head the Small Business Administration for her troubles.

Hey, at least it's something, right?  Now, quit whining about rich people trying to buy seats in Congress.  All she got was the SBA, and that was cronyism.  Totally different.



*pejorative term for "good government activists"

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trump, the Flynns and, fuck, I'm typing this... "pizzagate"

Look, I love a good conspiracy theory as much as anyone (as entertainment), but really?!  I think the industry jumped the shark on this one.

Yeah.  Trump's team tried to get security clearance for Flynn Jr. (son of his National Security Advisor pick, cuz' nepotism rulz!), who is a pizzagater.

Good reference:  John Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.  One of the critical concepts is the "rejection axiom."  Basically, people have a tendency to reject messages that are inconsistent with their prior beliefs.  Why?  Cognitive dissonance sucks.

Trump knows nothing and believes nothing.  Therefore, he rejects nothing.  The problem with surrounding himself with conspiracy theorists who share his tendency to accept crazy shit, then, is that they reinforce his tendency to buy into the batshit-craziest notions around.

What will he do on the basis of whatever batshit crazy conspiracy theory floats into the Oval Office after he takes the oath?

A president with a brain would be able to reject those conspiracy theories, and surround himself with serious advisors in order to make rational decisions, even if you disagree with those decisions.

Craziest president of the modern era?  No question:  Nixon.  Dude was seriously paranoid.  Also, racist and antisemitic.  Go listen to those tapes.  His presidency?  A very strange one, hard to classify in ideological terms...  Some liberal policies, some conservative policies, some very violent policies...  Anyway, weird things ahead.

This is what happens when we elect the guy who rose to the top through birtherism.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Carson as HUD Secretary

There are several ways to look at Carson's selection and acceptance as Secretary of HUD.

1)  Carson had previously admitted that he wasn't really qualified, knowing nothing whatsoever about housing policy.  However, traditions of patronage run deep throughout American history.  The key is that you only treat a job as a patronage job if it isn't an important job.  Example:  the job of ambassador to some tiny beach resort country might be for sale to campaign bundler, but the job of ambassador to France?  Nope.  France is too important and complicated, even if everyone wants to hang out in Paris.  What does it say that Trump gives HUD to someone patently unqualified?  He thinks of it as a patronage job.  It's unimportant to him, and to Carson.  Priorities.

2)  "Urban."  Need I say more?

3)  Funny thing about bureaucracies.  Power doesn't always flow downwards, particularly since employees have civil service protection, and Trump can't just tell them, "you're fired!"  Carson will be, in all likelihood, a particularly hands-off Secretary, having no knowledge of or experience in housing policy.  Agency rules constrain employees anyway, as do existing laws, and without changes through either legislation or the regulatory process, employees at HUD will continue to be constrained by the same rules as under Obama while Carson pontificates about how the pyramids were built as grain silos by Joseph...



Yeah.  So, what will Carson do?  Hard to say, apparently even for him.  The obvious role for Carson would have been Surgeon General, but apparently, ya' know, "urban."

Y'all know he is actually a seriously great surgeon, right?  Medicine is actually his thing.  But, well...

Nevertheless, boring but good book:  James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy.  With a name like "Smuckers," nope, still boring.  I had to read it, though.  For multiple classes.  So, hey, here's something exciting.  Jazz on a Tuesday.  Can we just admit this is what Trump was thinking?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Political implications of Trump's Carrier deal

Donald Trump worked out an arrangement with Carrier that kept a tiny number of jobs in the US, in exchange for some tax breaks for Carrier.  He got great press coverage.  Alarmists suggest that he can distract the press this way for an entire presidency while doing stupid stuff and get away with it.  It doesn't work that way.

Remember, he won because Alan Abramowitz was right.  Alan Abramowitz's presidential forecasting model is the "Time for a Change" model.  The gist is this:  one party has a really hard time winning three elections in a row, which only happens when the economy is going gangbusters.  It happened in 1988, but that's the only time in the post-WWII era that a party has won a third term.  In 2016, we had tepid economic growth.  Underlying conditions favored the Republicans.

How do we measure conditions?  Abramowitz favors GDP growth as his measure of the state of the economy, but other political scientists, like Doug Hibbs, prefer measures like Real Disposable Income growth, which factors in both unemployment and inflation.  Either way, they measure the broad economy.

Small-bore deals, like the Carrier deal, cannot affect the national economy, and if the economy does poorly while Trump stages stunts like this, the kind of analysis that really did predict a Republican victory suggests that things will go very badly for him.

So, yeah.  Go for it, Donny boy.

Now, what will Trump's actual macroeconomic policy look like, and what will the implications be?  Um, who knows?  The state of the economy is largely out of the president's hands.  However, he will be unable to respond intelligently to exogenous shocks, both because he knows nothing about economics, and his team of cronies knows nothing.

Oh, and here's GDP growth for the last 20 years, according to Federal Reserve Economic Data.  We could very well have a recession soon.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Trump's Taiwan phone call and strateg(er)y

Wow.  Trump hasn't even been inaugurated yet, and he has already caused at least a minor international incident.  But, is there more to it?  The Taiwanese President (whatever-- fuck you, Chinese government) called to congratulate him, and Trump took the phone call.  Officially, we don't recognize the Taiwanese government because China is a bigger trading partner, and oh yeah, they've got lots of nukes.  So, we tend to tread cautiously around their oh-so-delicate sensibilities.

Anyway, Trump did a no-no.  What's the deal?  Two interpretations.

1)  Occam's razor says Trump is a venal idiot.  Somebody called to congratulate him, so of course he took the call.  It took him days to disavow the endorsement from David Duke.  Why?  Trump is all about reciprocity.  Your worth as a person is determined entirely by whether or not you like him.  So, the President of Taiwan likes Trump?  Taiwan must be awesome!  If that plays into his China-bashing, then so be it.  Strategy?  What's that?

2)  Trump's approach to international relations depends on his capacity to make and carry out dangerously self-destructive threats.  He will threaten anything from trade wars to actual wars, any of which would be harmful to the US to carry out.  How could he make those threats credible, when the US would suffer from the implementation of those threats?  Well, there's the problem, and it was the theme of the "Political science and craziness" series I did back in August (links below).

Here's the gist.  Suppose you and I are in an enclosed space, and I threaten to detonate a grenade if you don't give me $20.  If you think I am sane, you won't do it because you will know that I won't think that my life is worth $20, and blowing up the grenade would take me with you.  On the other hand, if you think I am crazy, I might do it, so you might give me the money.  Key book:  The Strategy of Conflict, by Thomas Schelling.

The point is that there is a strategic benefit to being seen as crazy and willing to do stupidly self-destructive things.  How can you create that impression?  By doing stupidly self-destructive things, at least at a small scale.

Like, maybe, taking a phone call from the President of Taiwan, sticking a finger in the eye of China in a way that we haven't done in decades for no other obvious reason.

Occam's razor still says Trump is a venal idiot.  But, I wrote that "Political science and craziness" series back in August.  Interpretation 2 is a bit (or more) Rube Goldberg, but cannot be discounted completely.  If you have to bet, though, always bet on the Occam's razor interpretation.  Screw gillette.  Occam is still the best a man can get.

Links to "Political Science and Craziness"

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

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

Before Chris Stapleton got semi-famous in country music circles, I was listening to this.  Alright, alright.  I'm a hipster.  This is still some of the best bluegrass around.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Donald Trump, Mitt Romney and Lucy Van Pelt?

Raw speculation time.  We have no idea what Trump will do with the Secretary of State position.  Hypothetically, though, what if Donald Trump just wanted to be an asshole to Mitt Romney for leading the neverTrumpers?  What would he do?

He would make it look like he was considering Romney for Secretary of State.  He'd make Romney beg and plead.  He'd make Romney show up a few times for dinner interview type things.  He'd make Romney release a statement praising Trump.  He'd drag it out interminably.  He'd stage stuff like this.



And then, at the end, he'd yank the football away, Lucy Van Pelt-style.

Trump gave the Attorney General spot to Sessions rather than Christie because of Bridgegate.  Giuliani is still sitting around with no reward for his loyalty, and no such scandals, and he clearly wants the job.  Will Trump betray the loyal sycophant in favor of his enemy?

He has some reason to do it.  Reach out to some skeptics, as he did by selecting Pence rather than, say, Gingrich.  Remember, though, that he was forced to choose Pence because there was basically nobody else he could pick who would satisfy the party insiders by filling all of the gaps in his resume.  That's why I predicted, back in April, it would be Pence.  There are people in the party who would be happier with Romney, but there wouldn't be a revolt over Giuliani.  So, maybe he's just pulling a Charlie Brown on Romney.

So, what will Trump do?  No clue.  But, call this the Lucy Van Pelt hypothesis.