Sunday, October 22, 2017

The possible release of JFK documents and belief in conspiracy theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Weishaupt, my ass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The White House staff and Trump's lies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, wait...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A bipartisan deal to block Trump on Obamacare (?)

This... may be interesting.  Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander have supposedly formulated the outlines of a deal for a piece of legislation to counteract Trump's executive order cutting off the cost-sharing subsidies for the individual healthcare markets.

I went through the "what ifs" a few days ago on healthcare if Trump's executive order stands, and as far as policy consequences go, they range from dire to just unpleasant.  The political wrangling was similarly uncertain.  I put a low likelihood on a simple fix to the loophole that let Trump block the cost-sharing subsidies, and added another category for crazy-shit-happens.  The rekindling of the Alexander-Murray talks is somewhere between the two.

First, recall that Alexander and Murray were in talks for bipartisan fixes to Obamacare before the whole Graham-Cassidy mess, and Alexander, shall we say, "shut that whole thing down," because there was no way Graham-Cassidy could pass if it looked like Obamacare was going to have its holes patched.  So, he stuck a knife in Patty Murray's back, ended bipartisan negotiations, and gave his full support to Graham-Cassidy.

He hasn't actually restarted that process, and somehow, Murray isn't spurning him entirely.  (Think about that.  Would you?)  Anyway, roughly, the deal is as follows.  Cost-sharing subsidies are fully funded in the law (temporarily, at least), but along with that are a few goodies for the GOP, like reduction in the requirements for some state waivers.

So, there are two interpretations we can take from this, depending on how much the GOP goodies wind up being worth, presuming the deal passes (more on that, after the fold).

1)  Hostage-taking, and in fact, hostage shooting works again.  Back in 2011, the GOP held the debt ceiling hostage (in Mitch McConnell's words, the debt ceiling was "a hostage that's worth ransoming"), and Obama didn't understand what he was doing, or who his opposition was.  So, he gave the hostage-takers a shitload of money, in the form of spending cuts on programs about which he cared, just to not crash the economy of every country on the planet.  It took a few cycles to break the GOP of the hostage-taking habit (although the impulse is still there).  Really, it took the 2013 shutdown, but they've been burned by it, and they stopped doing it (mostly).  Trump just shot the fuckin' hostage.  Patty Murray is now offering the GOP policy concessions to stop shooting hostages, undoing the hard work that the Democrats did fixing Obama's 2011 fuck-up.

2)  Maybe the concessions to the GOP are just minor concessions to help the fix go down easier.  As I wrote the other day, most in the GOP don't want Trump doing this kind of stupid shit because they know the risks to the health insurance market, and they know that the GOP will take the blame.  So, patch the hole.  But, getting a deal through requires getting Republican buy-in, and that requires throwing a bone to the conservatives, and in particular, the Freedom Caucus so that they don't feel like they got screwed even though the only thing they know how to do is to complain about how they are getting screwed.  So, find something that looks like a win for them, but isn't all that big in real terms, add that to the deal along with the important thing, which is blocking Trump from cutting off the cost-sharing subsidies, and Bob's your uncle.

The difference between 1 and 2 is the importance of Murray's concessions.  This... is where I'm really not your best source because this is about the importance of one policy versus another.  I'm not really a policy guy.  The aspect of the deal that I find most interesting, from the Democrats' perspective, is the increased eligibility for catastrophic plans.  I'm going to do some reading on those, and from a strategic perspective, I think the Democrats should too because that could be a trojan horse.  Then again, as I said, I'm not a policy guy.  Go elsewhere for that shit.

Now, can this pass?  In the Senate, if Mitch McConnell lets a vote happen, then yes.  Murray's support means the Dems will follow her.  Alexander can bring in Collins and Murkowski easily.  The Democratic caucus plus Alexander, Collins and Murkowski...  Getting to 51 in the Senate shouldn't be a problem.  Ugly, yes, but it should happen if McConnell permits it.  Of course, there is the perverse possibility of a majority party filibuster, but I'm skeptical.  We'll see.

The House...  Again, I find it difficult to believe that the Democrats will turn on Murray's negotiated deal.  We have seen them follow her before.  When she was Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, post-2011, she worked out a framework for future spending to prevent stuff like that showdown with the Chair of the House Budget Committee at the time.  I think is name was Paul somethingorother.  He was an Ayn Rand-worshipping dudebro.  Whatever happened to that guy?  Regardless, House Democrats went along with Murray.  They tend to do that.

Anyway, that leaves, as usual, the mess of the House GOP caucus.  Even if there are enough Republicans willing to support the Alexander-Murray plan, the Freedom Caucus can threaten to overthrow Ryan if he brings it up for a vote, and Alexander-Murray is dead.  Will that happen?  It depends on how they see the concessions, and I have no clue about that.  Maybe Trump will say he loves the deal, and they go along.  He has already signaled general support, so who knows?

This is all batshit crazy.  Welcome to modern American politics.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Why Trump (sort of) gets away with things

Donald Trump's approval rating, according to Gallup's tracking today, is at 37%, and he is under federal investigation.  We don't know what Mueller's investigation will reveal, and Trump so far is remarkably unsuccessful in legislative terms, partially because the GOP is dysfunctional, and partially because he doesn't have a fucking clue what he is doing.

And yet, in some sense, he gets away with a lot.  He stated, on national television, that he fired the Director of the FBI over investigations into matters related to Russia, the tangled web of which is so distressing that according to the Wall Street Journal, the CIA hides intelligence from the President because they worry that he is compromised.  Yeah, remember that and let it sink in.  Again, if you forgot.  The President lies so egregiously, and so frequently that it is difficult to keep up with the task of trying to call him on his dishonesty.  I could keep going, but the basic point is... shit is deeply fucked up, and it isn't just Congress that is whistling along as though everything is normal.

In cognitive psychology, we/they sometimes apply the concept of the schema.  A schema is, essentially, a model used to organize an array of facts.  In politics, people can use a variety of schemata (plural of "schema"-- don't ask).  Consider, for example, a partisan schema.  Most Democratic politicians hold one set of positions and Republicans another.  Thus, if you know a politician's party and organize information within a partisan schema, you can simplify the process of thinking about politicians' platforms.  D or R is all you need to know.  Errors come about, then, when a politician holds a position out of alignment with his or her party.  Susan Collins, for example, is a pro-choice Republican.  Experimentally, if you hold a partisan schema and I present you with a set of policy positions from a politician and then ask you to recall those positions, you are more likely to make errors recalling positions that are out of alignment with that politician's party.  Schemata can help you organize information, but they can also lead to errors.

I think you can see where I'm going with this.

I am about to commit a sin for which I criticize hack columnists.  Warning.  Danger, Will Robinson, danger.

In a recent class, I was addressing stock forecasting, and Trump's recent decision to cut off cost-sharing subsidies.  For reference, I put up Anthem's stock, which dropped rather noticeably in response to Trump's action.  From an investor's perspective, if you had known about this in advance, you could have profited from it.  (Since you probably wouldn't know, you shouldn't buy individual stocks-- you should buy passively managed funds, like a simple S&P index fund).  Students asked about conflict of interest laws, and I had to explain the fact that while conflict of interest laws apply to everybody in the federal government except Trump, the President does not have any formal "conflict of interest" constraints on his actions.  The law is written in such a way that Donald Trump, as President, can take formal actions, as President, in order to benefit himself and his family personally, and it is legal because conflict of interest laws don't apply to the President.  I didn't do an extended lecture on emoluments, but the mere observation that the President is immune from "conflict of interest" laws, combined with the fact that Trump has not disclosed his assets or taxes, didn't just strike students as wrong-- they were surprised that it was true.

The idea that the President is immune from conflict of interest laws, and might be personally benefiting from actions taken in office, is so far from what the general public would expect that it is difficult to accept.  And yet, for those of us in political science, and those of us who follow politics obsessively, it is almost a given that Trump is taking actions to benefit himself.  He is a shameless con artist who refused to divest and put his assets in a blind trust, or even perform full disclosure, and his financial past, including such despicable shit as "Trump University" means that anyone who trusts that vile sack of shit is either not fully informed, or, well...

And yet, the idea of the President of the United States using the office to benefit himself personally is so outside the... schema that a member of the general public might have that it is difficult for people to accept.  It is difficult for people to accept that The President of the United States of America would lie as frequently and egregiously as North Korean state media.  He does, but the idea of that happening is so outside the realm of expectations that it is difficult for people to process.  So... they don't, and the political system moves on as though things are vaguely, kind of normal because accepting the possibility of a president who does the things that Trump does means accepting something so outside the bounds of an American schema that it is difficult to process.

The idea that the President of the United States of America might be influenced by Russia is so outside the realm of our experience that it is difficult for people to process.  We hear the notion, and it sounds so absurd, so insane, so ludicrous, so completely batshit fucking crazy.... And yet, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA won't share intelligence with Donald Trump because they worry that he is compromised by Russia.

How does that kind of reporting not get remembered?  Part of it is distraction.  People are focused on mundane nonsense, like Trump's stupid twitter rants, rather than what is truly important.

Really, though, the biggest problem is that people cannot process that which is so far outside American experience.  We have a President who is not just stupid (the theme of my last several posts), but almost certainly corrupt beyond historical comparison, and potentially even compromised by a hostile foreign government.  And that's not just me on my snarky, profane blog.  That's the CIA, as reported by the lefty, pinko-commie rag, The Wall Street Journal.  I really want to see what Mueller digs up.

By all means, though, let's ignore the dancing bear.  Maybe Trump will tweet something stupid today, and obviously that will be far more important than the fact that the CIA thinks that Trump may be compromised by fucking Russia, according to the Wall Street Fucking Journal.

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

Following vaguely from yesterday's blues post, the banjo is derived from African gourd instruments, like the ngoni.  Here's Bassekou Kouyate's "Siran Fen," from Ba Power.  I love Malian music.  Mali is in perpetual turmoil, though.  What's going on there today?  I'm almost afraid to check.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The relevance of presidential intelligence

I have been ranting rather frequently about the topic of presidential intelligence lately because, well... Donald Trump.  I thought I might take a detour from that to discuss a few objective points.

How is the economy doing?  Trump hasn't had much time in office, but he hasn't crashed the economy.  Q2 GDP was growing at an adjusted rate of 3.1%.  That's actually pretty good.

How about inflation?  Trimmed mean PCE (yeah, I know, that's a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo, but it is inflation) is sitting at 1.62%.  That's below target.  No signs of runaway inflation.  For some reason, the Fed is talking about raising interest rates because OMG INFLATION!!!!, but that's another story.  What does the president have to do with inflation?  Not a fuckin' thing, but I'm throwing this in here.

Unemployment?  The jobs data in the latest report were fucked up by hurricane shit, but the official unemployment rate is sitting at 4.2%.  Pretty good.

Stocks?  I'm writing this before the markets open today, but last week, the S&P closed above 2550.  These days, checking my portfolio is fun!

For all of the bluster and bullshit, we aren't at war.

So, um, the President is a "fucking moron," in Rex Tillerson's terminology, or in mine, "the dumbest motherfucker in the history of politics."  Does it matter?

1)  We are less than a year in.  The president has little direct control over the economy.  Presidents are given credit or blame for the economy, but they generally deserve neither.  The Fed matters a lot more.  Let's watch what happens with Fed appointments.  That will matter a lot.

2)  I reference Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict rather frequently.  International conflict is about the escalation of risk, and the increasing probability of conflict.  Probabilities are increasing.  Former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, James Stavridis thinks that Trump has about a 10% chance of starting a nuclear war with North Korea and a 20-30% chance of starting a conventional war there.  That is an escalation in probabilities.  That's how we have to evaluate this.

3)  Thinking probabilistically, we need to think about other increasing probabilities of disaster from incompetence.  What happens if an economic challenge occurs within the realm of presidential authority?  Can Trump respond?  No, because he's a fucking moron.  Again, this is about probabilities.

4)  Trump's decision to cut off the cost-sharing subsidies to the health insurance companies in the individual markets will have negative consequences of unknown magnitudes.  Again, we are in the realm of probabilities, but this is a prospective assessment.  We don't actually know how much damage will be done.

Over-all:  Trump has never actually faced a real presidential crisis.  The question I like to pose is as follows.  Imagine any person as President during October 1962.  Would humanity still exist?  With Trump, no.  Just... no.  He would have ended humanity.  Nearly every president has faced crises, whether the global economic collapse that plagued both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, 9/11, Cold War flare-ups... getting through four years without a major crisis is highly unlikely.  Some presidents handle these things well.  See:  Kennedy, JF.  Some handle them surprisingly well.  See:  Bush, G.W. and the financial collapse of 2008 in which he deferred to economic experts and had his administration push the highly unpopular but necessary TARP through Congress (whether Bush deserved blame for the crisis itself is a separate question).  Some... do phenomenally poorly.  See:  Buchanan, J., who is arguably as responsible for the Civil War as any one person could be.  Trump his highly likely to face a serious crisis simply because the president usually will.  Reckless morons are temperamentally and intellectually unlikely to behave the way that JFK did in October 1962.

Does it matter that Trump is an idiot?  The answer is probabilistic.  It probably will, even if it hasn't yet.  Right now, things really are actually kind of OK.  Let's be blunt about that.  Let's also be blunt about the facts that Trump hasn't faced a real crisis, presidents usually do, and Trump is a reckless moron.  These facts matter.

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

Otis Taylor, "Simple Mind," from Recapturing the Banjo.  The banjo is an instrument of African descent, derived from a simple gourd with gut strings attached.  The transition from that to its social connotations in modern America is a bizarre one.  Fortunately, the blues scene today has people like Otis Taylor around, along with his compatriots here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Donald Trump and measuring intelligence

I find myself thinking of an old aphorism this morning.  If you are running from a bear, you don't need to be faster than the bear.  You just have to be faster than the guy next to you.  There is a corollary.  In order to be a successful con artist, you don't actually have to be smart in any objective way.  You just have to be smarter than the mark.  (See my previous reference to the SNL "landshark" bit.)

Donald Trump really wants to convince people that he is smart, and he insisted that he would beat Rex Tillerson in an IQ-measurin' contest, so I find myself thinking about the debate within psychology over the concept of IQ.

Is there such a thing as general intelligence?  The concept of "G," as it has been referenced within psychology has been largely abandoned, as I understand it, within psychology due it its lack of predictive power.

We can construct tests in which questions assess a broad range of cognitive tasks, such as mathematical reasoning, spatial reasoning, linguistic reasoning, and so forth.  We can then combine answers to these questions into a single index, and call that index G.  We can put that index on a scale, normalized to 100 where 100 is the population median, and call that the "intelligence quotient."  All of these things are mathematically possible.  Whether or not that score has predictive power for things like grades in school, professional success, financial stability later in life, and so forth... that's another matter.

Made more complicated is the clear observation that different people can have aptitudes for some tasks, but not others.  We can observe mathematical aptitude in people who have a difficult time with language.  We can observe linguistic aptitude in people who have little capacity for spatial reasoning.  To make matters more complicated, how do we even measure artistic or creative aptitude?  I posted Richard Thompson today, in a break from Sunday's normal bluegrass theme, and Richard Thompson is a rare musician who also happens to be a brilliant writer, but one can be an astonishing instrumentalist who can't string two words together.  How would we characterize that?  Then, there is "social intelligence"-- the ability to interact with other people in an effectual manner.  The stereotype of mathematicians is that they are incapable of doing so, and while some fit the stereotype, stereotypes are just that.  I'll recommend that everyone read Neal Stephenson's baroque cycle, beginning with Quicksilver, to see how he characterizes Newton and Leibniz.  (They're great books anyway).

All of this is to say that the concept of general intelligence is controversial at best.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.  In yesterday's post, I referred to him as, "the dumbest motherfucker in the history of politics."  I have been relatively consistent in my characterization of Trump as being about one neuron short of a synapse.  If I reject the concept of general intelligence, though, by what basis do I describe Trump in this manner?

In principle, Trump might have the capacity to solve mathematical or spatial problems, if presented with such.  We truly have no idea.  We have never observed him in a circumstance in which that aptitude has been tested (such as after his family bought his way into Wharton).  Likewise, he may have untapped musical ability.  Imagine that!  Many great musicians were assholes.  Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, John Fahey... total douchebags.  Of course, not all great musicians are assholes.  John Coltrane was such a chill dude, once he got off heroin, anyway, that people started an actual, serious Church of John Coltrane.  This isn't like the 24-Hour Church of Elvis.  No, the Church of John Coltrane is serious.

There really might be some untapped intelligence somewhere in Trump's brain.  I... just haven't seen it.

What we observe from Trump consists of the following.  He talks.  A lot.  There are several ways to evaluate peoples' words.  First, you can evaluate linguistic fluidity.  Trump's got none.  Some people just have a way with words.  Whether they kissed the fuckin' Blarney Stone or just got lucky in the epigenetic lottery, they have a way with words.  From Shakespeare to Richard Thompson (although Richard Thompson would probably rip me to shreds for daring to include him with Bill), some people make words sound good.  Whether through poetry or flowing prose, we can enjoy their constructions.

There are also people who stumble over their words, and sound ineloquent, but have insight buried within a morass of messy prose.  I'm going to reference a political scientist here.  Stephen Skowronek.  He is best known among political scientists for writing theoretically grounded models of the presidency, which is hard because of the small-sample problem.  And as a writer, Skowronek sucks.  He is fucking smart, though.  Reading his work is a miserable experience because he sucks as a writer, but he is smart.  In politics, we remember George H.W. Bush as a very smart guy who couldn't get three words out without mangling two of them, but nobody ever questioned his intelligence.  That got twisted around with Jr., but whatever else we can say about Poppy Bush, "stupid" is not a word anyone associated with him.  He just couldn't speak.  The distinction was based on the observation that once you put in enough effort parsing the garbage, there was stuff buried in the mess, even if you didn't agree with it.  He wasn't a... "fucking moron."

We can evaluate actions.  It can be difficult to distinguish between stupidity and lack of impulse control, but it is a thing to evaluate.

Or, we can look at outcomes.

Maybe there's more, but I'm just writing a Sunday morning blog post.

Language.  One of the best turns of phrase anyone ever used to describe Newt Gingrich was that he was a stupid person's idea of what a smart person sounds like.  I referenced Stephen Skowronek and George H.W. Bush because people who actually are literate-- people who are accustomed to intellectualism, and reading a wide range of materials written by people with a wide range of linguistic approaches-- we can smell our own.  Mythbusters did a great series of episodes trying to throw off drug-sniffing dogs with a variety of techniques, and they basically didn't work.  Intellectuals-- we're drug-sniffing dogs, and we can smell a faker from a mile away.  Language will always reveal true idiocy.  That's why George H.W. Bush could mangle sentences and not be treated quite the same way Trump is, and Stephen Skowronek can write paragraph-length brain-eating monstrosities without anyone questioning his intelligence.  But, if you truly have nothing of value to say, then as soon as you open your fucking pie hole, those of us who read every day of our lives will know.  Donald Trump just... doesn't sound like a smart person mangling his words.  He sounds like a fucking moron, and there's never anything insightful coming out of his mouth.  I don't know how else to put it except that we can smell our own.  This is an elitist thing, absolutely.  He is not a member of the intellectual elite.  Why not?  He doesn't have the brain power, and we all know it the moment he opens his mouth.

Actions.  Does Trump behave intelligently?  He behaves impulsively.  The eternal question with Trump, then, is whether or not that impulsiveness masks underlying intelligence of some kind.  Would he behave differently if he stopped to think?  We can never know.

Outcomes.  Trump is rich.  Maybe you have noticed.  He likes to talk about it.  How did he get that way?  He'll lie, of course.  He inherited a lot of money, lost a shitload because he can't even figure out how to make money with a casino, and then got really rich by getting on tv and playing the role of a genius businessman, while getting people to pay him to slap his name on buildings built by others.  This is... bizarre.  How rich is he?  By many estimates, if you took what he inherited, and invested it in a passively managed S&P index fund, he would have slightly outperformed that, after the tv thing.  So, that's good, but he did it, not by investing wisely, but by investing badly and then playing a role.  This is bizarre, and leads to...

Social intelligence.  Does Trump have social intelligence?  He managed to get elected President.  Now, with the general election, he had a hell of a lot of help from James Comey, but he did get elected President, against all odds.  Does that mean he has social intelligence?

I return, then, to my initial corollary to the bear aphorism.  I, personally, have a difficult time assessing Trump's supposed social intelligence, as do most intellectuals.  It is obvious to most intellectuals that Trump is kind of a dipshit.  It is also obvious to most people that he is, if not a true sociopath, then close enough.  What draws anyone to a dumbass psychopath?  Every characteristic he has makes him completely repulsive to me.  He is the antithesis of anything that I can respect.  I truly do not think that he has a single decent or respectable characteristic.  He is the most vile thing I have ever seen in American politics.

But different people react differently to social behavior anyway!  Here's the plain truth.  Bullies are and always have been popular.  Think of every bully you have ever encountered.  Remember the coterie of evil but pathetic little fuckers latched onto them like little remoras?  If you have a brain and a conscience, you hate bullies.  But, the world has plenty of social remoras.  Does the ability to appeal to such people constitute "social intelligence," or is this just a basic symbiotic relationship cursed on the rest of humanity?

I'm going to say that Trump doesn't have any more social intelligence towards the social remoras than sharks have towards actual remoras.  Some people are just intrinsically attracted to bullies.

Beyond that, then, does Trump show any intrinsic signs of intelligence?  Even if we take a very broad view of intelligence, we have to say that he could only be intelligent if there is some aspect that we aren't measuring, and in that sense, sure, he may have a form of intelligence that we aren't observing, but that brings us into the realm of "nonfalsifiability."  As a social scientist, I'm not a fan of nonfalsifiable hypotheses.  So, I'll keep calling Trump "the dumbest motherfucker in the history of American politics."

Sunday music: A break from bluegrass because this one is just perfect for today

Yes, Sunday is bluegrass day, and Richard Thompson isn't even American, but given today's theme, I just have to post this one.  Richard Thompson, "Hots for the Smarts."  I wish he would put this on an album.  His live shows are the best, and he has put out some great live albums, none of which contain this gem.  Regardless, here's someone with a strong claim to being my favorite musician of all time.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What happens now that Trump is trying to blow up the healthcare industry?

Well...  Trump is really doing this.  Trump is cutting off the cost-sharing subsidies.  What happens now?  In other and not-unrelated news, Susan Collins has decided not to run for Maine Governor.  Why?  To keep blocking Senate Republicans.  Anyway, let's just run through the possibilities.  As usual, I'll try to assign some rough estimates of likelihoods.

First, the direct consequences.

A)  The markets actually destabilize.  The cost-sharing subsidies are there for the insurance companies who get costly customer bases to be able to afford to stay in the markets.  Markets can destabilize in one of two ways.  Without the cost-sharing subsidies, the costs could just be passed on to a subset of customers, or the companies themselves could just pull out of the markets.  If the customers can't afford the increased costs, the markets destabilize.  The latter would probably be even more dangerous.  We just got through a period in which several counties, for a period of time, had zero insurers.  Then, companies came into those counties to fill the gaps.  Without cost-sharing subsidies, though, who knows what could happen?  There could be widespread gaps.  Anywhere it looks like the lack of cost-sharing subsidies could kill profitability, there might be zero insurers, and everything destabilizes.  Or, the costs could just be passed on to customers, and everything destabilizes.  Likelihood?  Hard to say directly, but high.  This is, after all, the whole point of what Trump is doing.  This is batshit fucking crazy beyond belief.  I have been scouring my political memories for examples of presidents actively trying to cause damage to America as a bargaining chip, and... I can't think of anything.  This is just Donald J. Fucking Trump.  Think of all of the despicable things that presidents have done in US history.  Think of slavery.  Advocates of slavery believed that slavery was good and right.  As evil as slavery was, its supporters thought that it was good and right.  They were seriously fucked in the head, but at least they actually believed they were doing good.  Trump doesn't even believe that this is good policy.  That's what is so fundamentally fucked here.  He is trying to cause damage here.  I don't actually know of any precedent here.  I used to teach about ideological differences, and about how liberals and conservatives just had fundamentally different world views and economic models that produced different policies, and that if you accept a different premise, you get a different policy, but that each policy is simply motived by a different premise.  This really is, for the first time that I can think of, a policy motived by an active desire to do harm to America.  I... really don't know of a precedent here.  What the fuck?!  Anyway, likelihood?  Hard to say, but high.

B)  The markets limp along.  The costs could just get passed on to customers who pay, and somebody gets fucked, but the markets continue to function in some form.  Likelihood?  By mathematical necessity, low.  1-high=low.  That's really all we can say here.  As is so often the case with a batshit fucking crazy idiot child of a President, we are in uncharted territory here.

A and B together, though, mean that the economic consequences of Trump's order are negative.  That is by mathematical necessity.  This is intrinsically bad policy.  This came about because a bunch of fucking trolls who were looking for ways to use the courts to undermine Obamacare because they didn't have the votes to do so in Congress found one of the places where the idiots who wrote the law didn't proofread it.  The cost-sharing subsidies section didn't do the proper thing in terms of appropriations, and blah, blah, fucking blah.  If you care about functioning policy, you do what Congress did back when Congress cared about functioning policy-- amend the law to make it function by correcting the language.  Or, you can do what a legal fucking troll would do, and try to sue to follow a strict-letter-of-the-law interpretation in order to destabilize the markets, and use that destabilization as an excuse to repeal the whole fucking law.  And if that doesn't work, you can elect a troll as president, and have him destabilize the markets by executive order in a temper tantrum.

Anyway, that's what he is doing.  How much destabilization will we see?  Who knows?  We'll see.

Now, the political consequences.

1)  Democrats agree to Republican terms.  Trump has actually said that by blowing up the markets, he will get Democratic votes for his demands on Obamcare.  Trump is the dumbest motherfucker in the history of politics.  That, as a brief aside, is a technical, political science term.  Either A happens, or B happens.  If A happens, then Democrats don't vote for one of the GOP's failed bills.  The healthcare system goes into fits, and the Democrats campaign in 2018 and 2020 against Trump's sabotage of the individual marketplace.  If B happens, then it isn't an imminent crisis anyway.  What is Trump thinking here?  Trump doesn't think.  He just does stupid shit.  Probability?  Absolute mathematical zero.  Trump is beyond stupid.

2)  Congressional Republicans work with congressional Democrats to fix the loophole that let Trump do this stupid shit.  This all comes from the fact that Democrats didn't proofread their own fucking bill.  That can be fixed.  If this starts looking bad for Republicans because Trump drags down the party by collapsing the markets (scenario A), congressional Republicans could decide (just barely enough of them, anyway) to work with Democrats to amend Obamacare and take away Trump's authority to do this.  Congressional Republicans have already shown a willingness to take away Trump's authority on international matters because they don't trust that fucking Russian stooge...  Likelihood?  Low.  This would require a bill to fix Obamacare passing the House, and the Freedom Caucus won't let Paul Ryan do that unless things get really bad, and even then...

3)  Senate Republicans get so spooked by whatever is happening that they actually pass a "repeal-and-replace" bill because whatever is in the bill looks better than the havoc Trump is creating.  Skinny repeal, Graham-Cassidy... this is all crazy shit, poorly thought out, poorly analyzed, and it spooked just enough Republicans that nothing could pass the Senate.  Maybe Trump's temper tantrum spooks enough of them that they decide that one of these hare-brained schemes is at least better than the stupid shit Trump is doing.  This is the "I'm going to hold my breath until my face turns blue" method of getting Congress to act because Trump is an idiot fucking child.  And it might work.  Likelihood?  Higher than either 1 or 2, but...  I don't see either Collins or Murkowski going along with this.  Who else, then, gives in?  McCain?  Rand Paul?  Um...  A collapsed market probably sounds good to Rand Paul, who uses that as an excuse for pushing total repeal, which can't happen anyway under reconciliation rules, and McCain has apparently decided that he has had it with Trump's shit, and his shitty diapers.  Maybe 3 happens, but Collins and Murkowski aren't giving in, so I don't know who else in the Senate caves.

4)  Something I can't imagine.  We are in batshit crazy territory here, so I'm just going to throw in scenario 4 as: crazy shit happens because President Camacho is tripping balls on something.  Likelihood?  Who the fuck knows at this point?

5)  Nothing.  Everything just limps along because the GOP is a totally dysfunctional party.  Likelihood?  If I can't estimate the likelihood of 4, I can't estimate the likelihood of 5.  Sorry.  We are completely through the looking glass here.

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

Eddie Pennington, "Crazy Dreams."  This is a live performance, but if you can track down the album, there is a version on Just My Style: Thumbpicking Old Favorites.  Pennington is a sadly under-recorded guitarist who is probably the best living master of the Merle Travis style of thumbpicking, although Pennington traces the roots back to Mose Rager and Travis's earlier roots.  Anyway, everything is crazy now, so here's Eddie.

Friday, October 13, 2017

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

Roland Kirk, "Triple Threat," from Third Dimension.  On CD, you can get the superior Third Dimension and Beyond.  Kirk was great, even in his pre-Rahsaan days.

The consequences of Trump ending Obamacare subsidies

Yes, this is a "holy shit" moment.  I have written about this kind of thing before.  Ben Bradlee, former Editor of the Washington Post used to say that he wanted people to open up the paper every morning and say, "holy shit!"  My grad school advisor, Nelson Polsby, used to say that journalists would then call up professors and ask, "holy shit, right Prof?  Holy shit?!"  Nelson would say that it was our job to say, "no, not holy shit.  This is normal and blah, blah, blah."

Nope.  This is another "holy shit" moment.  Trump is ending the cost-sharing subsidies in the health insurance markets, via executive order.  Why?  Some combination of lashing out, and the hope that by causing destruction in the health insurance industry, he will get the Senate to pass something... anything that could be called a "repeal-and-replace" bill.

Trump has been threatening to do this as a way to pressure Congress to act.  This was a hostage he was threatening.  Trump is shooting the hostage.  The President is shooting the hostage.  He is cutting off health insurance subsidies.  People will lose health insurance because the market destabilizes, and he is doing this as a negotiating tactic.  The President of the United States is taking an action, the purpose of which is to cut off health insurance for an unknown number of people, intentionally destabilizing the health insurance industry, as a negotiating tactic.

Holy shit.

Will this work?

Here's what we know about politics.  When bad shit happens, the President takes the blame.  In this case, it will be right for him to take the blame because this is intentional destruction.  If this actually does destabilize the health insurance industry-- which is highly likely-- Trump just weakened his own hand.

Holy shit.

I'll have more to say over the weekend.  For now... holy shit.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

President threatens authoritarian state. Nation shrugs.

You know, I used to be the guy whose politics were publicly inscrutable, but some days, it is just hard to figure out how to approach these posts.  Today, I am referencing Trump's statement that he would like to yank NBC's broadcasting license because he doesn't like their reporting.  That is not how the Constitution works.  We shouldn't have to explain this to the President, but that's not the point of today's post.  The point of today's post is the observation that the President is a pathological liar who thinks he should be able to shut down media organizations who call him on his bullshit, stupidity, incompetence and lies.  That is authoritarianism.  Authoritarianism has many flavors, and I'm not going to bother getting into the definitional games over what constitutes "fascism" versus any other item on the Baskin Robins menu of bad governance, but it should suffice to say that shutting down media organizations when they call the government on its lies is not kosher.  (OK, I'm losing the thread here.  Ice cream, kosher... never mind).

Rather, my point for today is the question of how worried we should be about the fact that Trump is threatening this?  The story is only a minor one throughout the news because most news organizations treat a Trump tantrum in which he threatens an insane, disgusting, wildly unconstitutional act as... Wednesday.  And that's just a demonstration of how fucking nuts everything is right now.  See my earlier post on "the paradox of news."  We live in a political world in which the President doing this kind of thing is only a minor story.  The smallness of the story is probably what is most terrifying to me.  It shows just how wrong everything has gone, because in an even remotely normal political world, a president even suggesting this would be an earth-shattering scandal.

At this point, it is worth turning to the latest iteration of Bright Line Watch, which does a survey of a bunch of so-called experts on the state of democracy in the US.  Why do I use the term, "so-called?"  Because somehow those jackasses got my name and decided to ask me to participate.  Obviously, their standards can't be very high.

As you can see in Figure 1, the "expert" rating is significantly higher on the "no interference with the free press" standard."  Why?  Basically, Trump hasn't have the power to carry this shit out.  Trump is throwing a temper tantrum, as always.  He is an idiot fucking child.  He doesn't have the power to yank NBC's broadcasting license.  The public is more likely to notice the tantrums, but those of us who get surveyed are more likely to understand the fact that Trump's powers here are limited, hence the difference.

That doesn't mean you should relax about this shit.  Attitudes change.  Beliefs that were once unthinkable become mainstream.  Sometimes with startling speed.  My favorite example is gay marriage.  Today, support for gay marriage is the majority position, but in the 2000 American National Election Studies Survey, the topic wasn't even asked because support for gay marriage was such a non-mainstream position that asking the question seemed pointless in the construction of the NES survey.  And in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which was very popular, as a way to shut down any accusation that he might support gay marriage.  Remember that, any time you appeal to majority opinion in defense of your policy positions...

Or, how about the topic of Barack Obama's birth?  When Orly Taitz filed her idiotic lawsuit after the 2008 election, she was just some sideshow curiosity.  We saw where that led us...

Donald Trump went on a stupid rant about how he "won the popular vote" if you discount the illegal votes.  This was bullshit.  Aside from my usual rant about how there is no such thing as the popular vote, the claim about illegal votes was nonsense, pre-debunked by all attempts to measure fraudulent voting so far.  See, in particular, the analysis of Justin Levitt, in many papers.  However, that claim, because Trump can't back away from anything, led to the formation of a commission which may do... who knows what?

Will Trump yank NBC's broadcasting license?  No.  He can't.  This is some serious shit, though.  The President is an authoritarian who doesn't understand or accept the principles of the Constitution.  Has that happened before?

Absolutely!  On a worse scale?  Absolutely!  FDR interred Japanese-Americans just because of their ethnicity.  There is ugly history for what happens when presidents don't understand or accept the principles of the Constitution, and when the public accepts those violations.

That last part is key.  Free speech is tricky.  Very few people truly believe in free speech.  We see this over, and over, and over again.  Free speech is great, until you say something that pisses me off.

Most of the research on support for the abstract principle of free speech, or any civil liberty, shows that it is most strongly associated with education.  Educated people are more likely to hold sincere beliefs in the actual concept of free speech, even speech with which they disagree.  (Have you noticed that I keep writing positively about the ACLU defending the neo-nazis' right to march in Skokie, IL?  Hi!  I have a Ph.D.!)  Only around a quarter of the country has a college degree.  Anything in this country that is dependent on widespread support for abstract principles is always at risk.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In which I gloat and make further depressing predictions

The Secretary of State has called the President a "fucking moron."  The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has referred to the White House as "adult day care," and the President's responses have been predictably Trump-y.

I get stuff wrong.  Like just about everyone going into the 2016 general election, I watched the polls, and since the polls were wrong, I made a wrong prediction.  When I do that, I own up to it.  I like to figure out what I did wrong so that I can avoid repeating my mistakes because I hate being wrong.  What I really like is when I'm right, and everyone else is wrong.  That just gives me a warm and special feeling.

After Charlottesville, I did a couple of posts (here and here, for example) explaining that a strain of conventional wisdom was wrong.  There was an argument floating around that became disturbingly common:  Trump's "many sides" crap, and his unwillingness to condemn the neo-nazis and the klan drew speculation, widely circulated, that that would mark a real turning point for Trump.  Supposedly, there was something fundamentally different about Trump's response to Charlottesville that meant the political system would respond differently.  You can't not condemn nazis.  (Sometimes, though, you can use a double-negative).  And yet, he did his usual thing.  So, speculation circulated widely that people would finally turn on him.

Of course, I called bullshit.  And I was right.

Let's look at two measures.  First, public opinion.  Gallup's tracking has Trump at 38% right now.  Back during those Charlottesville posts, he was at 36%, and the numbers have been basically steady.  No difference, as I said.  Why?  Trump couldn't lose any more support because anybody who supported him before Charlottesville was a hardcore Trumpist anyway, and would never leave him, short of a major economic or foreign policy disaster, which hasn't happened, and the numbers can't really go much higher because... he's fuckin' Trump.

I also wrote about congressional Republicans and other elites.  Is anyone more sour on Trump now than back in August?  The only one for whom you could even make a case is Corker, and Corker wasn't happy with Trump over Charlottesville.  That was when Corker pointed out the fact that Trump is unstable and incompetent, about which I wrote here.  In that post, I asked, "so, Bobby, what are you going to do about it?  My guess?  Nothing."  What Corker is doing is talking and quitting.  Talk is cheap.

Anyway, though, I pointed out during the Charlottesville mess that none of it would stick to Trump.  And it didn't.  Why not?  Because all of the damage that can be done to Trump has been done to Trump.

Trump is as unpopular as he can get, short of an economic collapse, foreign policy disaster, or his own party turning on him en masse, and that last thing ain't gonna happen, never, no way, no how.  Mark Meadows pointed out that Corker is emboldened by the fact that he is retiring.  Yup.  The rest of them are pathetic chickenshits who won't speak the truth, which is that Trump is, as Corker said, unstable and incompetent, or as Tillerson said privately, a fucking moron.  If the party doesn't turn on him en masse, then short of an economic collapse or major foreign policy disaster, then, Trump's numbers can't get much lower.

Remember, though, that these numbers are still really low.  Trump is really unpopular in historical terms.  It's just that... nothing that happens matters.  And that's the depressing prediction.

Think about the fact that those around Trump have been using private email accounts for official White House business.  Did you even know that?  Yeah, after all of that bullshit during the 2016 election, they're just... going ahead and doing that.  And the political system is shrugging because with Trump, nothing matters.

The obvious explanation is that we are constantly moving on to some new, stupid twitter feud, and that the distraction prevents us from handling important issues, but really, that's not it.  The reality show aspect of current politics is just a red herring.  The basic, core fact is that if an entire party's leadership refuses to concede a point, then no matter how indefensible their position is (e.g. "Donald Trump is fit to be President"), there will be a minimum level of support within the public for that position, and political journalists and the commentariat will act as though they must take the point with some level of seriousness, even if the point is ludicrous.  That's why Trump faced no real backlash for Charlottesville, as I predicted, why he will never face any real backlash for anything, and among the more depressing things I will write.

Bob Corker has said, pointedly, that Trump looks like he is trying to start World War III.  The former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO thinks there is at least a 10% chance that Trump will start a nuclear war.  Yes, that's nuclear, and that's the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.  The President is a "fucking moron" (source:  Secretary of State) who lacks the stability or competence to be President (source:  Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee).  He is also a textbook racist (source:  Republican Speaker of the House), and when asked whether or not the President understands healthcare policy, the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate struggled to restrain a laugh.

And yet, there will be no consequences for anything Trump says or does because his own party will shield him from any consequences out of fear that if they don't, the result will be a replay of the 1974 and 1976 elections.

And I haven't even mentioned Russia.  But Mueller's investigation, regardless of findings, won't lead to impeachment or prosecution.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Donald Trump versus Dan Quayle

This isn't worth a real post, but with Donny challenging Tillerson to an IQ-measurin' contest, and the latest flare-up in Trump versus Corker, I thought I'd make a minor note.

In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle officiated a spelling bee.  A student was asked to spell, "potato."  The student spelled the word correctly, but Quayle encouraged the student to add a superfluous e to the end.  Quayle later explained that the card provided by the school spelled the word incorrectly, and he didn't think it was correct, but he deferred to the card.  It was a Moors/Moops kind of thing.  Still, Quayle already had a reputation as being not-too-bright, and that just solidified it.  He couldn't spell "potato."  He was a... fucking moron (hat tip to Rex Tillerson).  For what it's worth, Richard Fenno wrote a book about Quayle.  Fenno didn't think that Quayle was the absolute smartest guy around, but Dan came across as nowhere near that dumb in the book, and as a general rule, trust Fenno's judgment.  Of course, we still joke about "potatoe."

Trump has now referred to Corker as "Liddle [sp] Bob Corker," as in, "Little Marco."

Remember, Quayle was reading off of a card provided to him, and that still killed what remained of his public reputation, and Trump is bragging about his IQ this very same week.

There has to be some lesson here somewhere.  Or, maybe not.

Bob Corker and boldness

Mark Meadows made a fun, little comment about Bob Corker.  Corker has been on a tear lately.  He has said that the White House is an adult day care center, that Trump looks like he is trying to start WWIII, that Trump regularly lies, and this is just the latest round of comments from Corker about Trump.  And Corker is the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mark Meadows-- a very conservative Republican-- made a comment about how "it's easy to be bold when you're not coming back."  Yup, Corker is retiring.  The implication, of course, is that the rest of the GOP congressional caucus is made up of a bunch of chickenshits, which... it kind of is because the smart ones agree with Corker, and they just don't have the courage to say it.

So, political science time!

Retirement.  What does it do to a legislator's courage?  We can measure that!  There is actually a long tradition of trying to measure how legislators' behavior changes when they tell the voters to take this job and shove it.  The idea is as follows.  If you are pandering to someone, once you decide to retire, you no longer need to pander to anyone.  You can do whatever you want.  So, for example, if legislators vote insincerely, they'll change their voting patterns when they retire.

John R. Lott started a long series of papers on this notion years ago to see if there is a pattern of insincere voting.  What did he find?  Almost no change in voting patterns when legislators decide to retire.  Changes were somewhere around 1-2% of all roll calls.  Implication?  On votes, anyway, legislators are pretty sincere.

The biggest measurable change?  Lawrence Rothenberg and Mitchell Sanders wrote a paper called "Severing the Electoral Connection" (American Journal of Political Science 2000, Volume 44, Issue 2) in which they claim to show big retirement effects.  On voting behavior, the effect isn't really much bigger than anything Lott ever found, but they did find "participatory shirking."  Basically, retiring legislators stopped showing up to vote.  They got lazy.  Senioritis.

That's still not what is going on with Corker, though.  The thing with Corker is about rhetorical pandering.  One of the books I regularly recommend is Jacobs & Shapiro's Politicians Don't Pander.  Essentially, politicians (normal ones, anyway) stick to their sincere positions, which is pretty much why there isn't much of a retirement effect on how legislators vote, but they try to pitch their beliefs in a way that voters will like.  The constraint that the public places on politicians is on how politicians present their beliefs, not on what beliefs they present.

Corker, though, is retiring.  He really is truly free.  He can say whatever the fuck he wants, and this isn't about policy.  This is about basic competence, or lack thereof.  As Meadows says, retiring legislators can be bold.  Yes, the research actually does kind of back that up, and Corker is taking full advantage of that.  The rest of those chickenshits in the GOP?  They are telling the naked emperor how great his outfit looks.

Bad image... bad image...

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

There's a... plague outbreak in Madagascar?  Um...

I actually listen to a lot of Malagasy music.  In particular, I am fond of "tsapiky," which is a style built around a fast, usually 6/8 time signature, originating from Southern Madagascar in the Tulear region.  Here's D'Gary, probably the best guitarist from the island, who sometimes plays in a tsapiky-influenced style.  "Very Ny Bado," from Akata Meso.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Who decides what symbolic acts mean?

I hate sports.  I mean, I really hate sports.  Whenever something happens that pushes a sports story into my political news, I get annoyed.  So, you know, fuck you, Donny and Mikey.

I guess there is this thing where some jocks are doing a protest during the national anthem.  They're jocks, so I don't give a shit.  Rather, I have a general question.  Who decides what a symbolic act means?  Flying a flag-- confederate or otherwise?  Displaying a statue of a particular historical figure?  Kneeling at an unusual time?  Whatever.  I'm going to be general here, and you'll see why.  I'm a social scientist.  We generalize.

1)  The actor.  Defer to the stated intent of the actor.  If someone flies a particular flag, displays a statue of an historical figure, traitorous or otherwise, kneels, uses a peculiar phrase (e.g. "___ lives matter," no matter what goes in that blank) or whatever, when you decide how to interpret the symbolic act, whatever the person says they mean, that's what it means, no questions asked.  That would have to cut both ways, wouldn't it?  Do you see anyone doing that?  I sure don't.  That kind of cuts to the heart of the difference between how people treat the phrases, "black lives matter" and "all lives matter."

2)  The audience.  Intent doesn't matter.  If someone gets offended, offense matters intrinsically.  That, too, would have to cut both ways.  So, we could ignore the stated intent of the people who say things like "that flag is my heritage!"  But, by the same token, if we are using Rule 2, we would have to ignore the stated intent of the people who say that "black lives matter" doesn't mean that white lives don't.  My opinion on the concept of taking offense is pretty well established, so I can't pretend that I find Rule 2 remotely justifiable.  Just because someone takes offense doesn't mean that they are justified in taking offense or that anything wrong has happened.  Otherwise, I take offense at you taking offense, and I take offense at you trying to control my expression without thinking about what I really mean, and we wind up in a situation of infinite regress.  So, fuck Rule 2.

3)  History.  Symbols and symbolic acts don't come out of nowhere.  The swastika or a burning cross have history behind them.  If someone tells you they mean something else, is it reasonable to expect an audience to believe them, given history?  No.  What about the history of the confederate flag?  And that's why that flag has been on its way down.  What, then, about new symbols?  Like I said, symbols don't come out of nowhere.  They develop in a political and social context.  That becomes trickier when a symbol is new.  If a symbolic act starts with one person or a small group of people in a modern context, do you defer to their explanation of why they do it, or does the audience get to gainsay them?

4)  Which audience?  I keep referring to "the audience," as though they are one entity, but that's bullshit.  Symbols can unite people, but they can also be divisive, and I am writing this because of disagreements over how to interpret symbolic things and acts.  So, if an audience gets to decide what a symbol means, then which audience?  If there is any sub-audience that gets offended, is the symbol offensive?  That's a Rule 2 kind of thing, so fuck that.  Let's be really blunt about this and point out how much a lot of this breaks down along racial lines, but that leads to inconsistency in the application of any other rule.

These are just some assorted ramblings on the interpretation of symbols.  Fuck symbols.  To quote the greatest philosopher of the 20th Century, George Carlin, "I leave symbols to the symbol-minded."

If there is any historical figure I idolize, it is George Carlin, stand-up philosopher.

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

Tedeschi Trucks Band, "Don't Know What It Means," from Let Me Get By.  The best working band around today?  A strong case could be made...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

John Kasich and whether or not the Republican Party can be fixed, Part VI

I left off with the premise that Republican primary voters are voting for the twits because they have repeatedly received signals to do so, rather than based on intrinsic preferences.

If so, then in principle, John Kasich has some hope.  The hope comes from the possibility that those voters who didn't vote for him last year might someday vote for someone more like him than the guy who was called a "fucking moron" by his own Secretary of State.  So, signals...

Signals come from somewhere.  Politicians and media figures, mostly, and there's that tangled relationship.  The Republican Party has a complex relationship with "the media."  Latin time!  The "-ia" suffix is a pluralization of "-ium."  So, media: plural.  The media are...  Yup, that stick is rammed way up there!  This is a substantive point.  Republicans have been bashing "the media" for a long time, but Fox News is part of "the media," as is the Washington Times (not to be confused with the Post).  Fox will never let you forget that their ratings are higher than CNN or MSNBC.  Very Trump-y of them, right?  (I wonder if that's a coincidence...)

The point is that the media landscape consists of many different outlets with a variety of viewpoints.  Some strive for a watchdog role that doesn't pick a side consistently, but others are clearly partisan or ideological.  Of course, that's not the same thing.  Breitbart is ideological, but not partisan.  They will pursue an ideological agenda, but are happy to bash the GOP.  Fox will contradict themselves on policy, but will pretty much take the GOP's side no matter what.  They are more partisan than ideological, which makes sense given the historical role played by Roger Ailes.

Both amid, and more importantly, prior to the rise of these outlets, though, the GOP spent years telling its core voters to distrust "the media."  In 1996, as Fox was just getting started, the National Election Studies survey asked respondents how often they trusted the media, from "just about always," to "most of the time," to, "only some of the time," to, "almost never," to, "never."  Pretty much nobody responded with the last answer (those who would give that last answer won't participate in a survey, as they cower in their tin foil hats!), and few respondents say always, but middle answers varied a lot by party ID.  In 1996, 3.8% of "strong Democrats" (the most "Democratic" on a 7-point scale) said "almost never," whereas 20.1% of "strong Republicans" gave that answer.

Fox News started because there was demand in the market for a Republican news source.  Republicans had been told that they shouldn't trust any other news source, and they are still told that today.  I keep harping on the Trump University story because it is an obvious demonstration of Trump being a two-bit con man, but... you have to know about the story to understand what's going on.  It isn't a story that Fox will cover, and if strong Republicans-- the base who keeps nominating the fuckwits-- have been told to distrust and hence ignore any media source that isn't pre-approved, well...

Well... Fox isn't covering much about Russia either.

Nevertheless, this is the easy and tempting answer.  Not many people watch Fox.  It is easy to exaggerate their importance because those of us who do pay attention to politics are too aware of their presence, but the actual audience, if you look at Nielsen ratings, is probably too small to explain that much about broad trends in politics.  The core distrust of the media, though, is important for considering how Republican voters treat signals about Republican candidates, and the media aren't the only sources of signals.

In 2008, John McCain selected... Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate.  She was clearly unprepared, unqualified, and to borrow Rex Tillerson's phrase, "a fucking moron."  It wasn't just Fox News that covered for her, though.  It was the entire GOP.  The reason:  Thomas Eagleton.

In 1972, George McGovern initially selected Thomas Eagleton as his running mate, and then withdrew Eagleton after revelations about his depression.  It was a big scandal at the time.  The GOP was not going to let Sarah Palin's stupidity and lack of qualification turn her into Thomas Eagleton.  So, instead of anyone in the GOP acknowledging the fact that putting her a heartbeat away from the nuclear codes would be fucking terrifying, the party sent signals about what constitutes being qualified for president, and what doesn't.  The signal:  vote for the unqualified, demagogic dipshit.

And that brings me back to Zaller.  Zaller's RAS model is about the sequential reception and acceptance of signals.  As more and more signals in one direction are accepted, it becomes more difficult to counteract them because any signal in the opposite direction is resisted that much more strongly.  Add to that the modern media environment, which wasn't even a consideration in Zaller's model, and John Kasich has a problem.  Republican primary voters have been told, repeatedly, by media figures and their own party leaders, that qualifications and intellect don't matter, and that the biased "lamestream media" (remember that gem from Sarah Palin?) aren't to be trusted.  Those signals have been received and accepted, making it not just harder for signals in the opposite direction to be accepted, but for voters to turn to outlets that would send those signals!

What would it take to counteract them?  Repeated, unified signals.  Zaller.  The problems?  Twofold.  First, the people who have already received and accepted those signals have also been told not to trust any media source that would present them with any opposing signal.  Kasich is fucked unless Fox News, Breitbart, and the now-highly-fragmented media environment all get on board.  That's a collective action problem!  This would have been much easier long ago, when Fox News really was the elephant in the room, so to speak, but the more fragmented the media environment gets, the more challenging the coordination problem becomes because the more likely it is that a viewer can just turn away from Fox if it looks like they've been turned into a bunch of cuckservatives.

The second problem is coordination among the politicians themselves.  In order for Kasich to get his way via the RAS model here, Republican primary voters need to receive a uniform signal that they should stop voting for the dipshits, and that uniformity must come from the Republican leaders.  You can immediately see the problem.  Any one leader has an incentive to call the other Republican leaders cuckservatives for any such attempt.  As Ted Cruz and his ilk do.  The problem is that this isn't just a one-way thing.

And that's the twist on Zaller here.  The RAS model isn't really a model of voting behavior.  I've been referencing it in the last couple of posts, and everybody should read Zaller's book, but it is really a book about survey responses to questions about policy, not voting behavior.  I'm writing about voting.  The relationship between voters and their party leaders is a more dynamic one.  That act of voting changes the power relationship and creates the incentive towards mutual reinforcement and the unhealthy spiral we have been observing for years.

This should sound kind of bleak, because it is.  John Kasich wants intelligent governance.  I don't think he's going to get it any time soon.  The Secretary of State called the President a "fucking moron."  Four years ago, Bobby Jindal said that Republicans had to "stop being the stupid party."  Sound familiar?

I don't know what it will take to "fix" the Republican Party.  I wrote a long series over the summer about the problems created in our political system right now because we don't have anybody taking up the banner of classical conservatism, and there is clearly recognition within the GOP that things have gone very wrong.  Solving those problems, though, requires a tremendous effort of collective action, and the party clearly isn't there yet.  Sorry, Gov. Kasich.