Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stop asking if this is a turning point for Trump

I keep seeing some version of the following claim:  Trump's response to Charlottesville will finally be the thing that does him in politically.  This is the second time in a few days that I have addressed this point, but it warrants another post because, no, this isn't different, and no, Donald Trump isn't going to suffer any additional consequences.

1)  Remember that overt racism is what brought Donald Trump into politics.  Donald Trump became the top Republican in the country by leading the "birther" movement, and birtherism was all about race.  In the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, we asked respondents where they thought Obama was born.  Guess what?  People's beliefs were closely connected to their responses to questions about things like whether or not the legacy of slavery still affects African-Americans today.  What does that have to do with where Obama was born?  Not a fucking thing!  It's just about race.  Like birtherism.  If you want to play around with the data yourself, here's a great site I use in class all the time.  (If you are one of my students, you probably have the URL memorized!)  Donald Trump got into politics as a racist demagogue.  Anyone who expects consequences now... have you been paying any attention?

2)  Trump's overt racism, even when it prompts expressions of scorn from other Republicans, never leads anywhere.  When he asserted that Judge Curiel couldn't oversee the fraud case against "Trump University" because he was a "Mexican," later amended to "Mexican-American," even Paul Ryan had to admit that it was "textbook" racism.  What happened?  What did Ryan or the rest of the party do?  Nothing.  Oh, and after claiming that he would never settle because only guilty people settle?  Trump settled the case against that bullshit "university."  Just in case you missed that detail...

3)  Pussygate.  Remember when pussygate was supposed to be the end of Trump?  Remember how everyone both condemned him and predicted his doom?  Yes, he had a hell of an assist from James Comey at the end there, but people actually voted for the guy who brags about committing sexual assault.

So, tell me again why this is different, and now, Trump has finally crossed a line?

There is.  No.  Line.

Trump's approval rating is down below 40%.  Gallup has him at 36% as of this morning.  This leads us to two questions.  How low can it go, and does it matter?

On the first question, without an economic collapse or major foreign policy disaster, not much lower.  He's down to his core supporters.  The people who still support him are the ones who are basically racist, misogynist, xenophobic... you know, the hardcore deplorables.  I can't believe I have to type this shit.  I'm a political science professor.  I used to be the guy who never took a public position.  Now, I'm publicly stating that if you support the President... well...  But seriously...  How hard is it to say that the nazis are the bad guys and that when they are involved, it's not a "many sides" kind of thing?!  Help me out here, Indy!



Thank you.  And it's a good thing they never made another movie after that one, right?  Right?!

Anyway, the basic question we need to keep in mind about Trump is as follows.  Trump has always been overtly racist.  Anyone who has ever supported Trump should be asked the following question:  Do you support Trump because he is a racist, or despite the fact that he is a racist?  If Trump's numbers are to go down further in the wake of this incident, it must be the case that Trump's remaining supporters include those who support him despite his racism.  What is the balance between those who cheer his racism and those who merely tolerate it?  That is hard to measure at this point.  I'm just guessing here, and I don't like guesswork, but at this point, I suspect that Trump is down to those who support him because of his racism, in which case his numbers won't go down because of this incident.

On the second question-- the consequences of low approval ratings-- well, that's more complicated.  While Samuel Kernell's Going Public is based on the argument that public approval is a crucial tool for moving public opinion, and thereby forcing Congress's hand lest they risk their own electoral fortunes, most presidential scholars see public approval as a lesser matter in terms of policy efficacy.  Congress right now basically doesn't give a shit what Trump thinks.  Scholars in the Neustadt tradition see professional reputation as being more important, and the only people in Congress who have a shred of respect for Trump are the mouth-breathers like Steve King, and this worthless sycophant...



The flip-side, though, is the question of whether or not Trump's approval ratings could get so low that congressional Republicans decide to stop protecting him.  Could Ryan or McConnell decide to start punishing him, somehow, for the shit he does?

That's a big, "NO," right there.  This was the topic of my post the other day.  Congressional Republicans just don't have that many options for imposing consequences on Trump, and the options they have, they aren't going to take.

So, here we are.  Trump is doing what he has always done.  His approval ratings are low, but probably can't go much lower without either an economic downturn or a foreign policy disaster, and congressional Republicans won't impose any consequences on him.

In other words, same old, same old...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Trump, Charlottesville and North Korea Part II: Self-immolation versus world-immolation

I'm going to start by saying, "I called it."  Yesterday, I posted this about how Trump getting distracted by Charlottesville would give the North Korea situation a chance to calm down.  And it did.  The North Koreans announced that they won't be shooting that missile at Guam after all.  Vox posted this after the North Koreans backed down, making much the same argument, but... I saw it coming before it happened, and posted before the fact.  So... yeah.  Keep reading this blog!  Profane and obscure, but basically right!  (Except when I'm wrong, but even then, I have cool music, right?)

Anywho, speaking of obscure, post hoc ergo propter hoc.  Latin for, "after this, therefore because of this."  It is one of the most important logical fallacies to understand because it is so tempting.  It is also one of the most common logical fallacies to plague the thinking of the great, unwashed masses.

That's not how causation works.  Time order is an important condition for causation, but just because A happened before B, that doesn't mean A caused B.  If you want to understand why this is so important, just think about those damned anti-vaxxers.  My kid got a vaccination, and then developed symptoms of autism.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc!  Of course, that vile fucking piece of shit, Andrew Wakefield had a lot to do with this.  He falsified some data, and published an article in Lancet, which they had to retract, but that still led to a lot of kids dying unnecessarily, and at the core of his bullshit was the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Don't fall prey to post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Trump warned of "fire and fury," and then talked about being "locked and loaded."  Then, just yesterday, North Korea announced that it wouldn't fire at Guam.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Trump quit talking about North Korea because he was distracted by Charlottesville and the criticism he was taking from the media.  North Korea then announced that it wouldn't fire at Guam.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

You see the problem.

Obviously, the first version will be more appealing to Trump because it will make him look like a "winner," and he can brag about being bigly, and oooh, look at how bigly his hands are!

Of course, yesterday morning, I explained that the distraction of Charlottesville would end the situation, before North Korea backed away from its missile threats.

In social science terms, how do we distinguish between these two stories?

Um....

Uh....

Well, the first version has a problem in that it omits some intervening events, and I'm going to claim some credit for pointing out the sequence as it was happening.  I think that gives me a bit more credibility here, but that leads to the next point.  Watch the Trump administration's behavior!

Trump's impulse would normally be to brag, and try to rub Kim Jong Un's face in having backed down.  Why?  Because Trump treated the whole situation as a show of dominance.  However, Tillerson, Mattis, Kelly and the grown-ups probably look at it my way, and understand that if Trump goes back to taunting Kim Jong Un, tensions get ratcheted up again.  They need him to keep his fuckin' mouth shut about North Korea for a while.  As long as he stays distracted by Charlottesville, or anything else so that real negotiations can happen, they're happy.  Or, at least, less upset.  With Trump, it's all relative.  But, if Trump tries to do some dominance display and brag about "winning" with North Korea, he undercuts the process.

Yesterday, Trump decided to backtrack from his second Charlottesville statement.  He's going full racist again, and basically avoiding the subject of North Korea.  Wasn't Kelly supposed to try to impose some discipline here?

John Kelly is basically OK with this.  Would he rather Trump not talk like David Duke?  Yes, but that ain't gonna happen, so he'll settle for Trump just focusing on Charlottesville.  Why?  Because while this is a public relations disaster for Trump, it is better to de-escalate North Korea, even if the cost is another incident of Trump being obviously an idiot racist.  There's nothing new about Trump being a loud-mouthed racist.  That will blow over.  His party will issue their half-hearted condemnations, then Trump will beat them back into submission.  See my previous comments on the Mika Brzezinski incident.

And within a week or two, Trump will do something else outrageously stupid and vile, and this will be off the headlines.  Within a month, people will have forgotten about Trump's reaction to Charlottesville because Trump will have done so many stupid and vile things that this just fades into the din.  He's just Trump.  But, North Korea will have been resolved because Trump let himself get distracted.  He chose self-immolation rather than world-immolation.  Again, I say yay(?)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and North Korea

Donald Trump's first comment about Charlottesville was that despicable comment about "many sides," in which he refused to call out white supremacist terrorism for what it is.  He needed two days of prodding for that to happen.  We all know why, and now he's sulking about the negative press he has been getting over it, because as we know, press coverage is the only thing that truly matters to Trump.

But did you notice something?  While this has been happening, did you notice what Trump hasn't been doing?  He hasn't been talking about "fire and fury" with North Korea.

To be sure, the North Korea situation is not resolved.  That will take time and diplomacy.  However, diplomacy can't happen as long as Trump keeps trying to out-crazy the North Koreans.

North Korea understands the logic of Thomas Schelling.  I keep writing about The Strategy of Conflict, and they get it.  You need to act like you might just be crazy enough to carry out a threat that would be self-destructive to carry out.  But, the benefit comes from being sane and acting crazy.  I keep hammering this point in because it is critical, and it was central to the "Political science and craziness" series.  So, what North Korea always does is rattle its sabre, and act like just maybe, they might launch a crazy attack, leaving just enough doubt that other countries give them food, fuel, etc., because they are dirt poor, and since they have nukes, nobody sane would dare attack them.  We've seen this before.  Anyone with a brain knows how North Korean sabre-rattling plays out.  That's why Guam shouldn't really be worried.

The problem is Trump.  Is Trump smart enough to understand this?  No.  Trump can't think himself out of a paper bag.  He'll just yell at the paper bag, call it a "loser," and, "third rate."  Any bag with any self-respect is plastic!  You're a loser, bag!  And low energy!

Then, he'll sob in the corner about his inability to get out of the bag, and probably blame some Mexicans.  Or, maybe the "fake news" is only pretending that the bag exists.  He's not in the bag!  You're in the bag!  It's a big bag, reversed!  And everyone's in the bag but Trump!

OK, that metaphor went on longer than I expected.  Point being, Trump is... not smart.  The "fire and fury" stuff was not smart.  There is nothing to be gained by escalating rhetoric with North Korea.  They aren't going to fire a missile at Guam first.  Why?  Because Kim Jong Un doesn't want to be wiped off the map, and if he shot that missile, he'd be signing his own death warrant.

The question has been whether or not Trump was psyching himself up for a pre-emptive strike.

And now he's distracted!

I'm going to be blunt and crass about this because I'm me.  There is a silver lining to Charlottesville.  It has distracted Trump from North Korea.  The more he shifts his attention away from North Korea and towards how persecuted he feels by the media over his connections to the white supremacist movement (e.g. Bannon, Gorka) and his history of cozying up to racists, the more he, by necessity, shifts his limited cognitive capacity away from North Korea and lets the grown-ups handle that situation.

That's a good thing.  Comparatively.

Charlottesville was vile.  The KKK, neo-nazis and other white supremacists are feeling free to come out of the woodwork because they are emboldened by Donald Trump.  Just ask David Duke.  He's quite open about it.  More people are probably going to die.

At least Trump is distracted from North Korea, though.  This is how this world doesn't end.  Yay?

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

Maintaining topicality has been harder with this series than with the other days.  So, here's something non-topical.  I don't know if I have used this fellow before for anything because I haven't consistently included artist names or titles in the text to make the blog searchable for music... because I'm an idiot.  I should change that.  (The searchable thing.   Making one's self not be an idiot is hard.  Just ask Trump!)  Teta, "Tsakorarake."  Country of origin: Madagascar.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Will THIS be Trump's undoing?

Trump did something stupid and despicable.  Everyone must condemn him.  Surely this will mean his political doom, right?

Lather, rinse, repeat.

After Trump's most recent incident that everyone needed to condemn (his misogynistic attacks on Mika Brzezinski), I posted this.  I stand by it, and it has significant relevance to Trump's response to Charlottesville.

The basic point of my earlier post was that unless congressional Republicans impose some consequences on Trump, he can continue to get away with anything.  What consequences could they impose?  I mean, in general, what could congressional Republicans do to Trump?

1)  Impeachment.  As I have explained before, many times, this will never happen, but it would be a consequence.

2)  25th Amendment.  In principle, Trump could be declared mentally unfit for office.  Another pipe dream.  Same reasons.  Note that I won't even bother spilling virtual ink on this.  Ain't gonna happen.

3)  Block Trump's policies, either by refusing to act legislatively, or by passing legislation to counteract his executive actions.  The problem with this approach is that Trump's policy agenda comports with the GOP's agenda in most areas.  The places where it doesn't, like trade, are areas where differences would occur anyway, so really, what's the difference?  Either the GOP would have to work against their own agenda, or do what they would do anyway.

4)  Whenever Trump acts like Trump, keep acting like a British cop...



So, options 1 and 2 won't happen.  Option 3 requires real policy sacrifice, and option 4, the option the GOP keeps choosing, is an old Robin Williams joke.

This is the basic problem, and I have to keep going back to good, old Thomas Schelling and The Strategy of Conflict.  Threats matter, and your threats are difficult to manage when carrying them out is self-destructive.  Option 3 is really the GOP's only choice once you take impeachment and the 25th Amendment off the table, which they have.  As long as the GOP decides that whatever policy they can get from Trump matters more than reigning him in, Trump can continue to get away with anything.  When you're President, they let you do that.

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

This past Friday, I used Duke Ellington for the jazz series, but went on a tangent about Lonnie Johnson's presence on the recording.  Apropos of nothing, here's some Lonnie Johnson, recorded in 1930.

Um, who invented rock 'n roll?  Chuck Berry, maybe?  Little Richard would obviously say, "Little Richard."  Loudly.  I beg to differ.  The correct answer is Lonnie Johnson, in 1930.  Listen, and remember that this was 1930.  This was six years before Robert Johnson's first batch of Delta blues recordings.

Oh, who cares, right?  That's Delta blues.  Fine.  This was 13 years before Muddy Waters moved to Chicago.

Fine, Chicago ain't Memphis.  BB King, whose primary association was with Memphis, was five years old when this was recorded.  Linguistic conventions tell me to spell that out rather than type the Arabic numeral.  Oh, and people who moved to Memphis?  Elvis wouldn't be born for another five years.

I could go on about how early this was in blues history, but seriously.  1930.  Just listen, and pay attention to how musically prescient and influential Lonnie Johnson was.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Trump's reaction to white supremacist violence

When David Duke endorsed Donald Trump, Trump refused to disavow the endorsement.  When the Trump administration put out a Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, it conspicuously omitted any mention of jews.  I could go on, but there's no point.  Trump's statement on the Charlottesville white supremacist violence is perfectly in character.  He can't condemn, or even really acknowledge the existence of white supremacism.  Some data are in order here.

In the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, respondents were asked to put themselves on a 10-point scale for how sure they were about whether or not Obama is a muslim.  In my opinion, they should have used a 7-point scale, but nobody cares what I think.  (If you are reading this, you may have heard me rant on this topic anyway).  Anyway, 5.3% said they were "extremely sure" Obama was a muslim, 15.5% said they were "very sure," 10.7% were "moderately sure," and 5.0% "a little sure."  Another 3.9% said, "not sure at all," but leaned towards the notion that Obama was muslim.  Add that up and you've got 40.4%.

That's... roughly Trump's approval rating right now.  And that's not entirely a coincidence.  These aren't exactly the same people.  Some people who believed, incorrectly, that Obama was muslim voted for Clinton, and some who knew Obama to be christian voted for Trump, but the fact that the numbers are so close should at least grab your attention.  I'm just doing a Sunday morning blog post, but here's the dirty, little secret.  If you have taken a class from me, you have heard me beat the following point into your head:  party ID predicts everything.  Vote choice, entertainment preferences, breakfast cereal...  You name it.

But, if you have the statistical background, you can play around with the 2016 National Election Studies data here, even if you aren't on an academic terminal and can't download the data set from ICPSR.  Belief about Obama's religion has an interesting statistical relationship with a lot of stuff in 2016.  Short version:  Trump supporters really were deplorable, and Clinton probably low-balled the number.  I think we're gonna need a bigger basket.

This deserves a full post later, but I'm just doing a quick Sunday post in response to Charlottesville.

My main point, though, is that there is a reason that Trump isn't doing a more full-throated condemnation of the violence.  A lot of his supporters are, while not violent protesters, the kind of people who are far more likely to say that Obama is muslim, and then vote for the guy who proposes that we ban all muslims from entering the country, while encouraging that protesters at his rallies be violently ejected, promising to pay the legal bills of anyone arrested for carrying out his wishes.

Anyone claiming to be shocked at Trump's response is either a) stupid, b) not paying attention, or c) being disingenuous.

Sunday music: No bluegrass today

Bluegrass is celebratory Southern music.  Instead, here's Mike Cooley with something more appropriate for the day's news.  I'm pretty sure I have used it before, but...


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Predictability and Donald Trump's approach to North Korea

I'm just going to make a brief point today.  Does anyone remember this?



Trump has certainly made things unpredictable.  We don't know if he is going to nuke the Korean peninsula in a first strike.  I'd say that's pretty unpredictable.

As a matter of strategy, though, predictability is a tricky thing.  When fighting in an asymmetric conflict, one side needs to be unpredictable.  Against a stronger opponent, if the stronger opponent can see what you are doing, you are toast.  You need to use stealth, trickery, etc.  On the other hand, if you are the bigger, stronger opponent who can crush anyone in a straight-up fight, predictability is actually your friend.  Your goal is to institute a deterrent.  Make it clear that if someone fucks with you, you will destroy them, but if they steer clear, you will let them be.  You need to set clear boundaries, and leave no doubt in your adversaries' minds about what will happen.  See:  Schelling, Thomas.

Of course, that's not really what Trump was addressing in the clip above.  He was addressing uncertainty over tactics.  Lately, Trump has tried to leave clarity in the minds of the North Koreans that he will destroy them with "fire and fury" (or was that not "tough" enough?) if they don't back down.  What tactics will he use?  Despite claiming to be "locked and loaded," he hasn't deployed any troops to the region.  On short notice, he could launch air strikes, but really, his best short-notice option would be to nuke them.  So, by not preparing any better alternative for a short-notice military option, Trump has left clarity on what he would do if he did act on short notice.  The primary uncertainty, then, is if he really will press that button.

That's not actually how strategy is supposed to work.  Not even by Trump's own contentions.

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

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

Let's ignore the looming risk of nuclear war and focus on the bright side of this week's politics:  The Mooch poked his head back out from under that rock!  I can use him again!  I decided to go with this one, from the greatest composer in all of history.  Beethoven?  Hah.  Ellington.

I am more likely to listen to Miles or Coltrane than to Duke Ellington, but come on.  Look at the list of what he wrote.

Anyway, here he is with Lonnie Johnson on guitar!  Yes, Lonnie Johnson (not Robert).  Charlie Christian was a great jazz guitarist, credited with making it a lead instrument on this side of the pond, after Django Reinhardt showed what it could do in Europe, but Christian was only 12 years old while blues guitar virtuoso Lonnie Johnson was playing with Duke Ellington on this 1928 recording.  Lonnie could play anything, and he did some great stuff playing duets with Eddie Lang.  I repeat, this was 1928.  Compared to what other guitarists were doing at the time, Lonnie was just on a different level.  Pay attention to what he does here.

And jazz was only a sideline for him.  Don't you want to check out his blues recordings now?  Sorry to those who aren't guitar fanatics.  Lonnie Johnson was just awesome.

Then again, here's some Duke Ellington!


The Google memo, and associated issues of sexism and free speech

Let's take a break from the threat of nuclear war to address the issues of political theory associated with that Google memo on why there are so few women working in the tech industry, and the firing of the author.

There is some interesting history here.  You may know the name, Larry Summers.  He is a prominent economist who also used to be President of Harvard.  He was at a conference, musing on the topic of women in math and science, and he suggested that maybe the subjects are dominated by men because of biological differences.

The faculty of Harvard held a vote of no-confidence, and Larry was ousted.  There is, as I understand it, research on the topic.  This isn't at all my area, and I try not to make public comments on topics about which I am not familiar.  I read pretty broadly.  My degree is in political science, but my interests extend well beyond that, and if I have read the actual research on a topic, I have no compunctions about commenting.  If I haven't actually read real scholarship on a topic, I keep my fuckin' mouth shut, and my typin' fingers from tappin'.  That includes a lot of topics within political science too.  I don't know the research on biological differences and math aptitude, so all I'll say is that the scholars from whom I have heard and read called bullshit on Larry, who decided to open his arrogant fuckin' trap before doing any reading.  If you are going to say something that reeks of sexism before reading existing research, you deserve whatever's coming to you.  As I understand it, the existing research does not back up the notion of biological differences, although I can't speak to the research itself, not being familiar with the methodology.  If you want an explanation of the research on that, I'm not your guy.

But that's kind of my first point.  If I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, I'm not actually talking, so there's no "I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about," because I don't want to be in that position.  I'd rather be the asshole know-it-all than the asshole know-nothing.  That works better if I read before talking.  Larry forgot to do that.

And so did that Google employee.

Statistically, white people have higher incomes and better social positions than minorities.  Statistically, men have higher incomes and better social positions than women.  If you are going to suggest that this kind of discrepancy has anything to do with biology, you better be prepared with some research before you open your fuckin' mouth or tap your fuckin' typing fingers if you expect not to get shut down hard, because it isn't just that you are going to get a hostile reaction for social reasons.  There's probably some existing research out there.  And it probably doesn't back you up.  So maybe read first.

That makes it hard to have a whole hell of a lot of sympathy for the Google employee who wrote the memo, thinking back to the Larry Summers incident.

But...

And you had to know that there's a but coming...

One of the more interesting aspects of the debate is the introduction of the "free speech" issue.  The left here keeps pointing out that Google is a private organization, and the First Amendment restricts the government's ability to limit speech.  True.  However, do you believe in the principle of free speech?  If so, then you should oppose private restrictions on speech too.

Government is an organization that imposes its will through the use of power, but it is not the only organization that does so.  Employers, for example, impose their will on employees through economic power.  Is it acceptable to limit someone's speech through the use of economic power?  In principle?  I'm not asking about whether or not the First Amendment permits it.  The First Amendment does.  I am asking about whether or not it is morally acceptable.  That isn't a question I normally ask.

So, let's turn to a source whom liberals generally like.  John Rawls and A Theory of Justice.  Central to Rawls's argument is the notion of the "veil of ignorance."  Pretend you don't know which side you are on, in a dispute.  Do you accept the rules, process, etc., as just?

So, let's put the shoe on the other foot.  Suppose a conservative employer fired an employee for an internal memo that made a claim speaking to the personal values of the left, with some, let's call them "factually-challenged" elements.  How would the left take that?  Would they take that as an act of persecuting the employee for a political belief?  Probably, and that's the Rawlsian problem with this situation.

Now, there is a Rawlsian answer, which is that it would depend on whether or not the alternative story is one in which the memo also could be construed to create a "hostile work environment."  The Google memo in question can be construed as misogynistic, so the continued presence of that employee at Google could be a problem for the work environment.  If the alternative memo were, for example, misandrist in an equivalent manner, the same standard could apply.  The veil of ignorance is a tricky concept to use because it depends on how we construct the alternative scenarios.

The basic Rawlsian problem, though, is that if we are to think of this as a question of whether or not employees are persecuted for expressing political beliefs in the workplace, the same standard must be applied to both liberal and conservative opinions, and the liberals who cheer the firing of the Google employee must ask themselves how they would respond to the firing of an employee who expressed a liberal belief, even a factually-challenged one.

As I said, though, there is more to this than free speech.  There is the hostile work environment aspect, and the fact that the idiot Google employee mouthed off without reading the research, just like Larry Summers.  However, when thinking about issues like free speech, it is always a good idea to go back to John Rawls, and remember that it was the ACLU that defended the neo-nazis' right to march in Skokie, Illinois.  And nobody has ever been more wrong about biology and the nature of humanity than the nazis.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Trump, McConnell and Jimmy Carter

Donald Trump is venting at Mitch McConnell over the failure of "repeal and replace."  That's... not smart, in a classically Trumpian way.  I'm going to revisit a comparison I have been making since March of 2016 (see, for example, here and here).  Trump as President is basically Jimmy Carter.  Other political scientists have been making this comparison recently too, but I'm pretty sure I was there first, if for no other reason than the fact that I started taking him seriously as a presidential contender in the GOP nomination contest while the rest of my colleagues were still writing him off as a sure-loser (mostly thanks to a terrible book called The Party Decides, which I have been bashing since the inception of this blog).

Anyway, here's a quick recap on the GOP's repeal-and-replace chances in the Senate, and how I have assessed them, as well as McConnell.  After the November election, I declared that under any other GOP president, I would have said that the party would have shirked on their promise, and just done a series of small-bore measures because repealing existing benefits would be too politically risky.  Multiple times throughout the process, I said I didn't see a way that the GOP could get it done.  The most uncertain I became was when McConnell proposed "skinny repeal."  Skinny repeal only failed because it lost McCain's vote.  Collins and Murkowski voted against it, but they were never gettable votes on anything else, and they didn't really matter.  McCain was the determining vote.  McCain has a reputation among some as a "maverick," for breaking from party leadership, but he rarely actually does it.  He gave a grand speech when he showed up to vote on the motion to proceed, about how horrible it is to break from regular order.  Then, he voted yes on the motion to proceed, and yes on a proposal that wasn't moved through regular order.  People like me called him out for just doing the typical McCain posturing thing.  Voting against skinny repeal was surprising because it is so rare for McCain to do the real maverick thing.  That's how close McConnell came.  And what could McConnell possibly have done to either Collins, Murkowski or McCain?  Nothing.  He has no leverage over any of them.  Collins is probably leaving to run for Maine Governor, Murkwoski has already shown that she can lose a primary, run as an independent write-in candidate and still keep her seat, and John McCain is a seriously old guy dying of a brain tumor.  What the fuck is going to scare him?

McConnell lost, but tactically, he played that as well as he could have.  The GOP just didn't have the votes.  When you assess how well someone performs a task, you have to consider the difficulty of the task.  I made this very point about the Senate, comparing the House and Senate.  I said that if the GOP had as hard a time as they did passing anything through the House, they probably just couldn't manage in the Senate because it was too difficult.  The difficulty of the task had to be acknowledged.  In that post, I included a clip of violin prodigy Mark O'Connor, playing Orange Blossom Special.  Now, Mark O'Connor is on a level that is just different from mere mortals.  My favorite bluegrass singer is a gentleman named Tim O'Brien.  He is also a multi-instrumentalist who can play anything with strings.  I'm happy to listen to him play fiddle.  Can he play as well as Mark O'Connor?  Fuck no.  Nobody can play as well as Mark O'Connor.  (Maybe Stuart Duncan...  And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope!).  But, anyone who bashes Tim O'Brien's fiddle-playing is even more of an asshole than I am, and that's a pretty big asshole.  He plays better than you or I ever will.  He's just not Mark O'Connor.

McConnell is a really strong tactician, given a task that may well have been impossible.  He didn't get the job done.  I don't know that anyone could have, but the insane difficulty of the task needs to be taken into consideration.

Of course, Trump can't do that.  He has to find someone to blame other than himself for the failure of repeal-and-replace because the motto of the Trump administration is "the buck stops somewhere else," and he also has to think in terms of pure winning and losing.  There is no room in that dichotomy for incorporating the difficulty of the task.  If McConnell lost, then he's just a loser.  It doesn't matter if the task was somewhere between insanely-difficult and impossible.  McConnell must just suck.  So, replace him.  No, that doesn't make logical sense, but it's how Trump "thinks."

Oh, and remember Carter?  This is a post about Carter.  As I said at the beginning of this post, I started writing back in March of last year about the parallels between Donny-boy and Jimmy Carter.  Carter won a nomination against the will of his party elders because of changes to the nomination rules after 1968.  As President, he had no connections to his national party, poor relations with his party leaders in Congress, and as a result, had little legislative success during his Presidency.  Key citation, Nelson W. Polsby, Consequences of Party Reform.

Trump won a nomination against the will of his party elders because of the post-1968 nominating system, has poor relations with his party leaders, has little legislative success, and continues to antagonize his own party's leaders in Congress.  This is a way to get things done, how?

Yeah, Trump needs McConnell.  McConnell is far smarter than Trump.  OK, technically, just about everyone is smarter than Trump (except for the fucking idiots who voted for him, which, granted, is a rather large number of people, and now I'm depressed...), but Trump needs someone in Congress who can actually work the legislative process.  The smartest Republican legislative tactician right now is Mitch McConnell.  Is he sleazy?  Hell yes.  Is he bound by any pangs of conscience?  No.  Between the shit he pulled after Scalia died, the "nuclear-grade bonkers" process of working out a "repeal-and-replace proposal (great phrase there, Sen. Murphy!), McConnell is actually what you get if you give Trump a brain:  the winning-is-everything mentality combined with actual knowledge of how the world works.  If Trump continues to alienate McConnell, he just pushes himself further into Carter territory.

Now, McConnell probably doesn't care that much.  McConnell, unlike Trump, has some thicker skin.  He's going to keep working towards policy victories, and if Trump doesn't stand in his way on substance, McConnell will probably just write off Trump's bullshit as the whiny ramblings of a semi-coherent toddler in the middle of a temper tantrum because that's basically true, and McConnell has been around.  Sticks and stones.  However, if Trump actually starts trying to fuck with McConnell, the problem is as follows:  there is no outcome that is good for the GOP.  If Trump wins the fight, the end result is that the GOP loses their smartest player.  If McConnell wins, the GOP winds up in a Carter situation.

Then again, they're pretty much already there.

As I keep saying, though, the more frustrated Trump becomes domestically, the more dangerous he becomes internationally.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why Trump can't get Kim Jong Un to back down

As of right now, how worried should you be about war with North Korea?  The odds are against it, but the odds are objectively worse than they have any moral right to be.  We don't have troops amassing anywhere, but that isn't how it would happen.  Trump would just lose his temper, and order missiles launched, or an air strike, and he'd do it on a whim.  And he'd announce it over Twitter.

Why are tensions escalating?  Last summer, I wrote a series called "Political science & craziness," about what would happen if someone as crazy as Trump became president.  The links are at the bottom of this post.  Part of the benefit, yes, benefit, is that a crazy person can threaten to do things that no sane person can do, and cause other people to back down.  Give me what I want, or I'll do something bugfuck crazy that will kill us both!  The goal is to appear crazy, but be sane because truly-crazy people will eventually do the bugfuck crazy thing, and that would be bad.  Scholarly reference:  Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.

Trump does enough bugfuck crazy stuff that his threats to carry out potentially self-destructive acts should have more weight than those of other actors.  That, as I noted last summer, should allow him some extra bargaining leverage.  Yet, tensions with North Korea are escalating because that's not happening.  North Korea is, if anything, ratcheting up their provocations, with missile tests, rhetoric about Guam, and development of ICBMs with nuclear capability.  Trump is sounding like a North Korean propagandist with that "fire and fury" schtick, and Kim Jong Un is going full steam ahead.

Why?

It isn't necessarily that Trump's threats have no credibility.  It is that Kim Jong Un has a lot more than just Trump on his mind.  Trump is probably too stupid to understand this, thinking exclusively about the world from a Trump-o-centric perspective, but Kim Jong Un has a bigger world view.

Kim Jong Un, of course, wants one thing:  to remain in power.  His weapons are a deterrent.  It is highly unlikely that he will carry out a first strike because he doesn't want to be wiped off the map in an act of retaliation.  He wants his weapons to be as powerful as possible to deter a first strike against him.  The stronger his weapons, the better the deterrent.

Suppose Kim Jong Un gives up his nukes and/or missiles.  He becomes vulnerable.  Suppose he slows the development of his weapons.  He becomes comparatively vulnerable, particularly as our missile defense system develops.

And he has to look beyond Trump.  Trump's term ends in 2020.  Even if he somehow manages to win re-election, which would be difficult given that he is, by far, the most unpopular president at this stage ever, and he won't have Comey helping him, that's only another four years.  Besides that... [cough, cough]... Trump is old and doesn't have a healthy lifestyle.

What, aren't you used to me saying shit like that?

Kim Jong Un has, what we call in economics, a longer time horizon.  He is playing against adversaries other that Trump who will succeed him.  Even if he were to accept some sort of detente with Trump on the premise that Trump is uniquely threatening, requiring him to give up several years of weapons development, that would cost him in the long term against subsequent adversaries, not just because he backed down, which weakens one's bargaining position (see Schelling), but because of the lost time and development.

Kim Jong Un sees Trump as, hopefully, just a bump in the road.  He is looking towards future leaders who can be deterred conventionally.  He won't strike first because his goal is just to remain in power.  This may be a mistake, though, because it is a view dependent on the notion that Trump is intelligent and rational, which just isn't the case.  Trump is stupid and crazy.  If Trump gets it in his little Trump-head that Kim Jong Un is actually going to attack Guam, then he may strike first, and all of this goes to hell.  Mattis and the other non-bugfuckers are assuredly telling Trump not to do so.  Whether he listens is another matter.

Then again, we don't actually have a lot of solid information on North Korea, and Kim Jong Un is pretty young.  Maybe he really is as crazy as his father and grandfather pretended to be.  If so, we're all bugfucked.


Links to "Political science & craziness"
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The return of the debt ceiling, and McConnell's 2011 solution

As you may have read, the debt ceiling is approaching again, and the same people who nearly gave us "skinny repeal" are in charge of making sure the economy doesn't collapse for no reason at all.  Yay!

As a reminder, the debt ceiling is a uniquely American stupidity.  Congress instructs the IRS to collect money in tax revenue, and it instructs the Treasury to disburse money according to annual appropriations and "entitlements," (Social Security and Medicare, mostly).  Since the latter is more than the former, the Treasury has to sell bonds to make up the difference.   However, Congress also has a statutory law that tells the Treasury that they can only have X amount of outstanding bonds.  That limit is the "debt ceiling."  If the debt ceiling is reached, somebody has to break the law.  Either the IRS has to collect more money than they are allowed to collect (ain't gonna happen), the feds have to sell more bonds than they are allowed to sell (also ain't gonna happen), or someone's not gonna get paid.  Problems ensue, particularly if that someone is a bond-holder, and investors lose confidence in US Treasury Bonds.  Interest rates spike, investment slows... lots of bad shit.  And the deficit gets worse because it gets harder to finance our debt.

Solution?  Pass a law to raise the debt ceiling.  Except, that it's complicated to do that because, um... well, actually, it's not complicated.  People just think that "raising the debt limit" sounds bad, so certain people like to demagogue about it.  Traditionally, the minority party in Congress demagogues about it, claiming something about how we need to "REIGN IN OUR DEBT!!!" and pretends that failure to raise the debt ceiling is actually fiscally responsible.  A young Illinois Senator named Barack Somethingorother once pulled that bullshit!  However, what has made the GOP different is that after they became the majority in the House in the 2010 election, they forgot to stop demagoguing!  And, the majority kinda needs to vote to raise the debt ceiling...

Since the 2010 election, Republicans have played stupid games, knowing they need to raise the debt ceiling, but trying to figure out how to avoid voting to raise the debt ceiling, even when they are the majority.  As we approach another debt limit, and one that they really might hit this time (!!!), it is worth re-considering Mitch McConnell's 2011 solution.

So, let's step into the Wayback Machine!  Sherman, your assistance please...

In 2011, the GOP had a majority in the House, but a minority in the Senate.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell understood that the debt ceiling needed to be raised, but he wanted to vote against it, and understood that pretty much every Republican did likewise, even though that couldn't happen in the House.  Profiles in courage, all around.  McConnell's proposal:  shift responsibility.  Give the president the authority to raise the debt ceiling.  Congress could then vote to block the debt ceiling increase, but it would then be subject to a veto, and the debt ceiling would be raised unless Congress had the votes to over-ride it, and that would require 2/3.  Republicans didn't even have a majority in the Senate at the time.  That way, McConnell and the cowards and demagogues could vote against the debt ceiling increase that they secretly wanted to happen without actually stopping it!  Genius!

Actually... yeah.  Kind of, except that it was too transparent.  It doesn't work without plausible deniability, and McConnell's 2011 scheme didn't have plausible deniability.  It was so naked in its cravenness that his own party's hardliners killed it.

Had it passed, though, it would have completely solved the debt ceiling crises during the Obama Presidency.  Obama would have just raised the debt ceiling, Congressional Republicans would have postured, and nothing would have mattered.

What happens, though, if the President is a moron?  What happens if the President is just too stupid to actually raise the debt ceiling?  McConnell's 2011 plan might be the worst thing to have in that totally hypothetical case...

So, the debt ceiling is approaching.  Congress may fail to raise it in time.  Then again, it might be worse if McConnell's 2011 plan had passed...

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

Close enough to today's topic, I guess...

Monday, August 7, 2017

Leaks can't be stopped

Who is the most famous leaker in political history?

Hint:  not a Russian hooker.  It has to be "Deep Throat."  Now, do you actually know Deep Throat's real identity?  Mark Felt.  FBI.  That secret was so well-maintained for so long that people still just think, not of Mark Felt, but of the mysterious and un-named "Deep Throat."

Decades.  He maintained his secret for decades.  And that was before the era of WikiLeaks.

Donald Trump has instructed the DoJ to try to crack down on leaks.  This is the leakiest White House we have ever seen for a very simple reason.  Executive branch civil servants think that Trump is corrupt and incompetent.  They are trying to undermine his administration.  The Mooch wasn't wrong about that.  Finding and stopping leaks is another matter.

Remember when Spicey called his staff into a meeting, and demanded that everybody hand in all of their electronic devices for screening?  OK, if you are going to contact a journalist with an electronic device, get a burner, and don't bring it into the White House.  If you want to get documents out... WikiLeaks.  Even if Sessions tried to imprison journalists, demanding that they reveal their sources, if the source is an anonymous burner phone or WikiLeaks, what's the point?

Mark Felt kept his secret for decades, and it has only gotten easier to get information to the press anonymously.  The DoJ's attempt to crack down on leaks misses the point.

This will be interesting.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

On leaks

With the leaked phone calls to Nieto and Turnbull, and Sessions now doing Trump's bidding on leakers, it is time to address the issue here.

With, of course, Miles's law.  I have referenced it before.  Where you stand depends on where you sit.  Hypocrisy codified.  It means that your goals and preferences will be determined by whatever institution you serve rather than any broader principle.  I extend Miles's law far beyond its original scope because I find it so useful.

Most people have an opinion on abortion.  More importantly, most people have an opinion on abortion that doesn't change.  If you are asked your position on abortion at one point in time, you are likely to give a similar answer at another point in time.  Why?  Because your opinion on abortion is governed by underlying issues of religious belief and culture that are relatively stable over time.  If you believe that god put a soul into the fertilized egg, at which point it becomes a human life, then abortion becomes murder at the moment of conception.  Since that belief is based on religion, and religion is relatively stable over time, that political belief will be stable over time.  On the other hand, if you are an atheist, then that argument won't carry any weight, and you aren't going to change your mind unless you change your mind about religion.  Later-term abortions may be a question, but not so with a just-fertilized egg.  That's why abortion attitudes are stable over time.  They are based largely on religion.  In the public opinion data, they are based most strongly on "religiosity," or how important religion is in your life.  Those who attend religious services most frequently are most likely to support restrictive abortion laws.  Those who never attend services are least likely to support restrictions on abortion.  That pattern has held consistently in the National Election Studies data.

Then, there are process attitudes.  How do you feel about government leakers?

And that's where we get into the muck.  Most people don't have stable attitudes about issues like federalism.  Why?  It depends on whether you have control of the federal or state government.

That's pretty much where the issue of leaking falls.

There are two sides to this, obviously.  There's the old cliche that sunlight is the best disinfectant, which is close to being true.  I mean, a gamma ray burst really would sterilize everything, but Sol ain't puttin' out one of those.  Still, expose nearly any life form to enough solar radiation and you'll kill it.  Tardigrades can survive a hell of a lot, though.  Badass little critters...

Grim astro-physics and microbiology humor aside, there is a lot to be said for not having a government run on secrecy.  How much bad stuff can happen when a government operates in secrecy?  A lot.  This is sort of an, "if men were angels" thing.  If you could trust the government to do the right thing, then you wouldn't need an open process, but the people in government are people, and if you could trust people, you wouldn't need government.  Power+secrecy=REALLY FUCKING BAD.  In all cases.  All the time.  I call this a universal law.

On the other side, as you have no doubt read elsewhere, there are two problems created by leakers.  First, if classified information is leaked, and that information is damaging to national security, well, then the leaks themselves are damaging.  Second, if the president cannot have private conversations, that undercuts his ability to engage in diplomacy and receive advice.

One is tempted to weigh these against each other in the specific case of Trump, taking into consideration his personal inability to engage in diplomacy or listen to advice, both of which are true anyway.

You don't get to do that here.  You have to do this in the abstract.  That's what it means if you want a principle for evaluating leaks.  Yes, Trump is a fucking idiot.  Yes, he is the worst leaker because he gave classified intelligence to the Russians, having received it from Israel without permission to share it.  Yes, he is the biggest problem here.  That's not my question here.  My question here is this:  what is the proper way to evaluate leaks independently of Trump himself?  You have to take him out of the calculations.

In a leaky White House, the president is unable to receive candid advice.  That's bad.  In a leaky White House, the president is unable to engage in candid diplomacy.  That's bad too.  In a leaky White House, though, the president can't get away with spilling national security secrets to the Russians without having us find out about it.  That's... actually, that's kind of good.

In an air-tight White House, the president can receive absolutely candid advice and nobody has anything to fear of public backlash.  That's good.  In an airtight White House, the president can have negotiations behind closed doors with other world leaders, and nobody has anything to fear about their words being leaked before a deal is worked out.  That's... GOOD!  Deals need to be made public, but the back-and-forth process is sausage-making.  That should be kept private.  But, in an air-tight White House, the president can get away with unlimited corruption, and possibly even treason.  That's... horrendous.

Neither of those scenarios are perfect.  The second one sounds worse to me, given the history of governments that operate with no public oversight.  That's a recipe for totalitarianism or unlimited corruption.  I'll take dysfunction over that any day of the week and twice on Sundays.  (Hey, it's Sunday!)

It also puts a better option somewhere in the middle, where there is some tolerance for some leaks.

And here's the interesting thing about the leaks we are seeing in the Trump administration.  Some are about things like the Mueller investigation, or the fact that Trump leaked classified intelligence to the Russians.  This is stuff that we, the public, need to know because they demonstrate how dangerous Trump is.

Some of the leaks are just embarrassing to Trump, like the phone calls to Nieto and Turnbull, which just demonstrate how unbelievably fucking stupid, petty, venal and personally dishonest Trump is.  They are valuable to the public in a sense, but only in that they add to what we already knew.  They also undercut diplomacy, though, putting them more in a gray area.

What we haven't seen are leaks of classified information that put national security at risk.  One can make a much stronger case that the Snowden leaks on US intelligence gathering programs hurt national security because they related directly to US operations.  Privacy vs. security.  Old debate.  Have at it, and it is a legitimate realm of ideological dispute, but those leaks were far more questionable than anything going on right now because they actually involved US operations.

What is going on right now really is a personal war against Trump within the executive branch.  "Deep state" is probably a bad term because it ain't that deep, but The Mooch wasn't wrong that there are a lot of people in the executive branch who think it is their job to save the country from Trump.  That's why we are seeing so many leaks.  The leaks aren't putting US military or intelligence operations at risk, as the Snowden leaks arguably did, but they are directly intended to undercut the president.  Your opinion of that will be tied to your opinion of the current President.  Miles's law in action.

The leaks themselves?  They are in a weird category, mostly.  Some of them serve a clear purpose, like when we learned that Trump blabbed to the Russians.  Comey's situation is different, obviously.  Trump accused him of leaking classified information, which is, needless to say, total fucking bullshit.  Most of these leaks, though, are neither true whistle-blower incidents, nor acts that undercut US national security.  Where does that leave them?

For Trump, he hates them because of Miles's law.  For you, as someone who hates Trump (you're reading this blog, and even if you disagree with some of what I say, I fucking hate Trump), you're probably entertained and encouraged.

I try to maintain some consistency in my opinion of leaks since I hate hypocrisy.  As a general rule, I fall back on that equation above, Power+Secrecy=REALLY FUCKING BAD.  I have a bias in favor of leaks, and I'll admit that here.  In order to be convinced against the value of a leak, I need to see specific harm.  One can make that case with Snowden, although that brings in the privacy versus security ideological debate, so your mileage may vary.  One can even make the case with the Nieto and Turnbull phone calls.  This is a balancing act.  At what point does the harm of the act of leaking outweigh the value of the information we learn?

Anyway, something to consider.  The problem with that last question is that I don't know if it can be divorced from the person in power at the time.

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

For the benefit of those who still like albums (like me), I like to use album tracks, so that you'd know what you would be getting, but the album track isn't available on youtube.  This comes from Mike Marshall's Big Trio album.  Same players.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Trump's recent displays of restraint and his psychological problems

Now that Kelly is in as Trump's Chief of Staff, Trump seems to be acting... differently.  Let's talk about that.

As you may have noticed, Trump has fetishized Generals.  Why?  He has a thing about "toughness."  He wants to be "tough," or at least, he wants people to think he is "tough."  So, he idolizes anyone who displays what he thinks of as "toughness."  That runs the gamut from dictators like Putin, Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un to psychopaths like Rodrigo Duterte to the military.  Of course, he'll run down anyone in the military if they don't idolize him (remember him disparaging John McCain, and all other POWs for having been caught...), but he does have a relatively consistent thing about toughness, whatever that means to him.

Mostly, it means belligerence to him, but the point is that he has some ideas that lead him to put Generals up on a pedestal.  Hence, Kelly as Chief of Staff.

What he doesn't get about Generals is that the military isn't just about "toughness."  It runs on discipline.  In the abstract, Trump likes the idea of imposing discipline, and if you asked him whether or not he considers himself a disciplined person, of course he'd praise himself, but despite the fact that he was shipped off to military academy as a kid, he doesn't actually have a very easy time living a disciplined life.

And this brings us to... um... well, I'm not a head-shrinker, and I have no obligation to follow the Goldwater Rule, so fuck it.  Let's talk about "anti-social personality disorder."  The psychology profession looooooves their euphemisms and they love to change their terminology because doing so makes them feel all special, 'n stuff.  There is loaded history with terms like "sociopath" and "psychopath," so a lot of head-shrinkers don't like to use those terms, but that's basically what "anti-social personality disorder" is all about.  Any difference is splitting hairs, as far as I'm concerned.  Of course, I'm a political scientist, not a head-shrinkologist, so they probably don't care what I think, but whatever...

Anyway, the American Psychiatric Association periodically re-writes its definitions to say who is sane, who isn't, and what we call each type of insanity in a big book called the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," or, DSM.  They are currently on the DSM-V.  Normally, I like to give y'all links, and while I have access through a VPN (benefits of being an academic), I can't find anything that gives you access without a VPN.  Sorry.

However, I like giving you at least some proper links, being picky about this kind of thing myself, and I didn't want to use one of those stupid pop quizzes to determine whether or not your roommate is a psychopath.  (Hint:  probably not).  But, I'm also lazy and just writing this over my Saturday morning coffee, so I'm not lookin' too hard.  This will work: here's something real, available at the NIH, that isn't behind a paywall, and that you don't need a VPN to access.  Unfortunately, it references DSM-IV rather than DSM-V, and there have been some changes to "anti-social personality disorder" diagnosis, but the critical element for our purposes today didn't change substantively.

Skip down to section 2.2.1.  So, actually, the pop outlets get it kind of right, right?
The diagnostic system DSM-IV, the preferred diagnostic system for this guideline (see Section 2.2.2), characterises [Tally Ho!  I'm a British author!] antisocial personality disorder as a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that has been occurring in the person since the age of 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of seven criteria, namely: a failure to conform to social norms; irresponsibility; deceitfulness; indifference to the welfare of others; recklessness; a failure to plan ahead; and irritability and aggressiveness (APA, 1994).
That "failure to conform to social norms" thing...  The passage cuts that condition short, but there's a whole can-o-worms there and it isn't just about whether or not you are a proper social conformist.  Remember that there was a time when being gay was considered mental illness by this same group of asshats, and consensual gay sex was illegal...  Just sayin'...  I could get into this a lot more, but that's not the point of today's post.

Regardless, doesn't that passage sound like Donny-boy?  If you have access to DSM-V, it doesn't get any better for him.  Of course, that's not a new observation, and I wouldn't claim it as such.  I'll just call your attention to the "recklessness" criterion.  That's kind of big, and consistent in the diagnosis of "anti-social personality disorder."

Let's just be blunt.  Trump is a textbook case of anti-social personality disorder.  And in case you missed this, the American Psychoanalytic Association* basically relaxed their version of the Goldwater Rule, telling their members that it is OK to diagnose Trump.

Trump is reckless.  He always has been.  And that recklessness is going to run right up against Kelly's military-style demand for order.  Trump will lose it.  Why?  He can't help it.  He can't.

Since Kelly started as Chief of Staff, Trump has held back on the tweets and showed a modicum of discipline.  It can't last.  What happens, then, when Trump lets loose a bunch of stupid tweets, or admits guilt to federal crimes on national tv, like he did with Lester Holt?  What happens to his relationship with Kelly?

Trump thinks they are peas in a pod.  Two tough guys.  He doesn't understand the nature of personal discipline.  Recklessness is at the core of his disorder.  We've seen this before.  Trump tones down the tweets.  For a little while.  Then, they come back, because he can't stop himself.  That is one of the central aspects of being a psychopath.  He can't control himself.

When most people think of psychopaths, they think of pure malevolence, or perhaps just the lack of empathy that seems to be required for such malevolence, but not all cruel people are psychopaths.  People can be driven to cruelty by all sorts of factors.  If you want a truly dark read, try Hitler's Willing Executioners, about how the Nazi regime convinced basically ordinary people-- non-psychopaths-- to participate in the most evil horrors ever.  Or how about just Stanley Milgram's ground-breaking book, Obedience to Authority, demonstrating that nearly anybody, including probably you, can probably be convinced to murder an innocent person for no reason other than the fact that someone in a position of authority tells you to do so.  People are horrendous.  Anti-social personality disorder is distinct from just being a shitbag, though.  The American Psychoanalytic Association relaxed it's version of the Goldwater Rule because they think that Trump is worse than a regular shitbag.  They think he is seriously mentally ill, and a part of that illness-- a central part of that illness-- is Trump's poor impulse control.

Trump's self-discipline won't last.  It can't last.

We'll see what happens to his relationship with Kelly once Trump goes on another tear, or loses it and fires Sessions even though Kelly told him that his job was safe, or something like that.  The idea of Trump maintaining military-style discipline? Yeah, right.



*Note that the American Psychoanalytic Association is not the American Psychiatric Association.  The latter is the one that wrote the DSM.

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

I swear, I didn't pick this because of the American flag in the background...

Friday, August 4, 2017

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

For those who care, the best place to get this track is Kirk's "Third Dimension & Beyond."  For whatever reason, this is where I found the track on youtube, which is how I embed these things.  Anyway, without further ado...


Trump and the Wall: The Nieto phone call

So, yeah.  That phone call.

Yesterday morning, I posted this about the problems Trump faces as the type of person who makes crazy threats, and gets into trouble because, while he might be able to extract some concessions by making threats that no sane actor could credibly make, he is not smart enough to understand when other actors are actually capable of conceding.  I posted it in the context of healthcare, but that Nieto phone call was just perfect.

Here's a link to the transcript, which the Washington Post acquired.  Cue the conspiracy theories about Jeff Bezos.  Short version:  Trump almost started to understand that Nieto wasn't going to pay for that fucking wall Trump had been promising, but Trump really wanted Nieto to stop saying that Mexico wouldn't pay because it made Trump look like an idiot.  (OK, technically, Trump's idiocy is what makes Trump look like an idiot, but Nieto was shining a light on it.)

This really does connect to Schelling and the "Political science and craziness" series, though.  The basic problem from Part V in the series was that crazy actors get into trouble when they make demands that can't be fulfilled.  They lock themselves into commitments that are self-destructive by demanding things that cannot be granted, backed up by threats that they feel compelled to carry out, even when doing so is harmful to themselves.

Trump's promise to make Mexico pay for a wall was, as I have noted many times, the dumbest campaign promise in history.  I truly don't know of a dumber promise.  The "something terrific" to replace Obamacare was less stupid because it is, actually, possible to design a better healthcare system.  Trump couldn't do it, but someone intelligent could, so that was a less stupid promise.  Maybe someone can scour a history book and find something dumber, but if we limit the field of possibilities to promises made by major party nominees and evaluate stupidity by historical context, I doubt that anything can top Trump's promise to make Mexico pay for the wall.

What made it so imbecilic was that a US president has no power whatsoever to force Mexico to cough up the money, and a Mexican president has no incentive whatsoever to do so.  Anyone who believed the promise... well, this is why I wrote that extended series called, "Assessing democracy..." back around December and January.  Regardless, Trump made a promise that he couldn't possibly back up.

And now we know that Trump actually kind of knows it.  One of the ongoing mysteries of Donald J. Trump has always been whether or not his bullshit bluster is because he has such an oversized ego that he really thinks he can do anything, or whether he understands that he is just a lying sack of shit, promising stuff he know he can't deliver.

On the wall, we have our answer.  He didn't even try to put pressure on Nieto to cough up any money.  Instead, he practically begged Nieto to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn't pay, just because every time Nieto does, it embarrasses Trump.  Trump went out on a limb.  And he can't figure out a way to climb back.

There are a few passages, though, that I find fascinatingly revealing about Trump's mentality here.  First:

"But the fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind because I have to say Mexico pay for the wall- I have to.  I have been talking about it for a two year period..."

From there, Trump goes on to blather about his idiotic, mercantilist interpretation of trade, demonstrating that he has never read any Adam Smith or learned anything about capitalist economic theory, so all trade is about winners and losers.  (If you were a mercantilist in the 1600s, you get a pass.  If you are a mercantilist in 2017, go play with crayons, you defective nitwit.)  But did you notice something?  Aside from the Schelling aspect of Trump having locked himself into his own position, untenable tough it is, you can go to the full transcript, and Trump explains why Trump can't back away from the "Mexico will pay" numb-skullery, but he never says why Nieto is in a bind.

Why?  Trump has no conception that other people exist.

Nieto isn't actually in a bind.  Trump is.  He can't back away from a central campaign promise, but he also can't make it happen.  That's a bind.  Nieto?  Nope.  No bind.  He has no incentive to give Trump the money.  But, he also has no incentive to... um... no, that's really it.  There's just no bind.  All of his incentives run in one direction.  Trump doesn't have him in a bind.  Trump made the dumbest campaign promise ever.  He has no power to fulfill it.  Nieto has no reason to give Trump any money, and no reason to pretend like he ever might, and Trump can't wrap his little Trump-brain around that because it would require thinking about a situation from a non-Trump perspective, and in the Trump-o-centric universe, there is no other perspective.

Next, let's focus on the fact that Trump admits that the wall is insignificant to him, in policy terms.  "Believe it or not, this is the least important thing we are talking about, but politically, this might be the most important to talk about."  Translation:  this is a joke of an issue, but I need to cover my ass by begging you to stop saying out loud what everyone with a brain already knew anyway.  It shouldn't actually be a surprise that Trump is a con artist.  He is an obvious con artist, and a bad liar.  In the Assessing democracy series, I addressed the difference between obvious scams, like the Nigerian Prince email scam, and  elaborate ones, like a fun one from Neil Gaiman's American Gods (the book-- it didn't make it into the show).  Based on the comparison, I argued in a later post that Trump's lies are more akin to the Nigerian Prince scam-- blindingly obvious to anyone with a brain.  (Insert Adlai Stevenson quote here).  So, what about those voters who fell for the Nigerian Prince scam candidacy of Donald Trump?  Surely there will be hell to pay when they find out that Trump isn't even really trying to get Mexico to pay, right?

Who's gonna tell them?  If you go over to the Fox website, their headline for the story is "MEGA-LEAK."  All-caps.  Why?  Emphasize the leak, not the underlying nature of how weak, stupid and dishonest the call reveals Trump to be.  The substance won't make it to the fuckwits who care about the wall, so no, that won't matter.  Still, we shouldn't be surprised that Trump cares more about how Nieto is making him look than about the policy.

And according to Schelling, that may be more important anyway!  Trump's inability to back up his demands does demonstrate his weakness.  Trump really is weak, and having been revealed as weak makes it harder for him to get what he wants later.  This actually matters in terms of future policy.  The call reveals Trump to be a pathetic weakling.  Trump's inability to get Mexico to pay reveals him to be a pathetic weakling.  Nieto calling him on his bullshit reveals him to be a pathetic weakling.  That actually matters because nobody around the world takes Trump seriously.  Why do you think Kim Jong Un keeps conducting missile tests?  The fact that the US President is seen as an incompetent fuckwit actually does hurt us in terms of international relations.  Trump isn't wrong to fear the consequences of this.

Nieto just has no reason to give a shit, and Trump is too fucking stupid to understand that.

Next, don't you just love how Trump puts his request as a "recommendation?"  He says, "So, what I would like to recommend is- if we are going to have continued dialogue- we will work out the wall.  They are going to say, 'who is going to pay for the wall, Mr. President?' to both of us, and we should both say, "we will work it out.'"

There are two interesting things going on here.  First, Trump thinks that this is some kind of a compromise.  Like, I demand that you give me $10,000 just 'cuz I say so.  You tell me to go fuck myself.  I say, fine, let's compromise.  Just give me $5,000.  C'mon.  That's meeting in the middle!  Don't you believe in compromise?!  I told my buddies that I'd make you give me money, so I have to have you give me money!  This is the world, according to Donald J. Trump.  He seriously thinks that this proposal involves them both making reasonable concessions.  This is why he thinks that he is a deal-making prodigy.  Really.

Second, I love that he puts this as a recommendation.  He's begging Nieto to stop calling him on his bullshit publicly, and he has the chutzpah to act like it's a recommendation.  Why?  Because "I cannot live with that."  Tough shit, asshole.  You're the one who made the promise that you knew you couldn't fulfill.  The really funny thing is that I actually know someone who pulls this exact same shit-- "recommendations" that are really requests, buried among heaps of lies.  This is Trump attempting to be authoritative, and frustrated that it isn't working.  You make a "recommendation" to someone with whom you have a hierarchical relationship, and Trump was trying to assert dominance.  Why?  Because for Trump, everything is about dominance.

And he doesn't get why it doesn't work here.

Trump is assuredly pissed that this phone transcript came out.  If you go back to your Schelling, the worst thing for your bargaining position is to be shown as unable to carry out threats.  The phone call reveals that even Trump knew he had nothing when it came to the wall.  Trump is a joke, internationally.  What the call reveals is that even Trump knows that he's basically trying to bluff his way through things.  That's why nobody in the international arena took him seriously before, and they certainly aren't taking him seriously now.

Unfortunately, that means he really wants to puff up his chest.  That may involve unnecessary military action.  I'm still warning about that...

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Trump's threat to the individual insurance market

Last summer, when the world still made a little bit of sense, I decided to contemplate a horrifying hypothetical.  What if someone as crazy as Trump actually became President?  I wrote a series on it-- "Political science & craziness."  The gist of it was that there is actually a benefit, derived from Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  If you can credibly threaten to carry out threats, even when they are self-destructive threats, then you can extract concessions that sane actors couldn't.  Give me what I want, or I'll blow us both up!  That kind of thing.

The thing is, you get the real benefit from appearing to be crazy, not actually being crazy.  Someone who actually is crazy eventually might blow himself up.  In Part V of the series, I wrote that a significant problem with someone like Trump would be whether or not he could recognize when he was demanding too much, or lock himself into carrying out a threat because he demanded something that just couldn't be done.  Disaster would ensue.  If I threaten to blow us both up if you don't sprout wings and fly, and I'm so damned crazy that I can't back down from a threat, we're both kind of screwed...

And that brings us to the current situation on healthcare.  As I wrote yesterday, one of the more interesting aspects of the current mess is Trump's threat to the "cost share reductions."  I won't go into the policy details, 'cuz I don't give a shit and other people do that better.  Short version:  Congress fucked up when they wrote the ACA and didn't give the President proper authorization to give the money to the insurance companies for when they have costly customer pools.  It was a drafting error, and everyone knows it.  Conservatives sued once they found the error, in order to stop Obama from making the payments, based on the theory that if they could stop the payments, they could collapse the individual markets (possibly true), which would cause a backlash against Obama, which Republicans could use to get unified control of government and repeal Obamacare.

Stop laughing!

Actually, if the individual markets had completely collapsed like that, a unified Republican government would have had a much easier time repealing Obamacare, so really, stop laughing.

However, things are different now that Trump is considering making the decision.  If the courts say, you can't do that, that's one thing.  That means Congress fucked up.  Point of fact, they did.  The proper response is a matter of legitimate debate, but Congress did fuck up.  That's kind of their thing, just like snark is my thing.  It would be different, though, if the President makes the threat.

That's the thing.  Trump has threatened that he will cut off the payments if Congress doesn't act.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  In a classically Trumpian way.

Let's do this the game theory way.  We use a technique called "backwards induction," which means, we start at the end, figure out everyone's best move at the end of the game, and work our way back to the beginning.  Suppose Trump backs down.  Then, Democrats don't have to do anything.  They've probably won.  Obamacare has holes that need to be patched, but the Medicaid expansion stays, the tax subsidies stay, the regulations stay, and the Democrats will sit on the problems until Trump is out of office hoping that somewhere down the line, the people involved will be less Trumpian.  It's still mostly a victory if they just sit and do nothing.  On the other hand, suppose Trump cuts off the money.  Trump thinks that means the Dems come crawling to him and go along with some Trumpian plan.  Um, no.  Cutting off the CSR doesn't touch the regulations, Medicaid expansion or tax subsidies.  The Republican plans all center on slashing the Medicaid expansion.  Combine that with the fact that Trump collapsing the individual markets will cause a Republican electoral collapse and if Democrats refuse to "come to the table," as Trump says, they can keep the Medicaid expansion, regulations and tax subsidies, and patch the CSR later after they take control.

What about the Republicans?  Here's where Trump's CSR threat might actually carry some weight.  If the congressional GOP actually think he might do it, they might pass a bill to stop him because it would be so disastrous for the GOP.  That's the point about self-destructive threats.  The problem is, which legislators are swayed by the threat?  The House passed a bill.  Trump did a big ceremony for it.  (Did you notice that he had a ceremony for that, like it was an actual piece of legislation signed into law, but skipped the congratulatory ceremony for the Russia sanctions bill?  Hmmm...)  The Senate killed the proposal.  So, which Senators are swayed?  Collins?  Yeah, they got nothin' on her.  Besides, she's probably running for Maine Governor.  Murkowski?  The one who lost a tea party primary to Joe Miller in 2010 and then beat him in the general as a fucking write-in?  And isn't even up again until 2022?  Yeah, she's not fucking scared.  Skinny repeal failed by one vote-- McCain.  What's Trump going to do to McCain now?

So, it is difficult to see how the threat gets Congress to pass anything.  Trump needs to back down.  This returns us to a key point that Schelling makes repeatedly.  Backing down reduces the credibility of your future threats.  And Trump hates to do it.  On this, if I had to guess, I'd guess he will back down.  I don't think he'll blow up the individual markets.  How much confidence do I have in that?  A little, not a lot.  He's reckless and stupid, but he also tends to listen to the last person to talk to him.  He'll have Tom Price telling him "no fucking way" on this, and I doubt even Steve Bannon will advocate shutting down the CSR money.  Trump does make idle threats.  Then again, he is impulsive, so who knows?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The future of Obamacare in Congress

As I wrote yesterday, staying on track is hard.  With the Fox News lawsuit, word that Trump wrote Fredo's initial statement on his meeting with the Russian agents, and so forth, there is so much to discuss.  But, I really want to get back to Congress.  That's what I know best, so that's just what I'm going to write today.  The burdens of being just one asshole who writes this over his morning coffee...

Anyway, will the GOP try again?  Well, there are three things going on.  There is Trump's ongoing threat to cut off payments to the insurance companies who happen to get costly customer bases, and then the two interesting developments.  First, Lamar Alexander has announced that he will being holding bipartisan Senate hearings on actually fixing the real holes in Obamacare.  That's kind of a "holy shit" kind of thing.  This was McConnell's worst nightmare.  Bipartisanship.  This was the sword of Damocles that he tried to dangle over his party's throats as the threat to get them to pass whatever bill he wrote in secret.  What will come of that?  Waaaaay too soon to tell.

And then we've got one last "repeal-and-replace" effort worming its way through the system, and the GOP really might try again with it.  Would they succeed?  The odds remain strongly against them, but this is not a party motivated by rational thought.  The word, "Obamacare," sends them into paroxysms of of mindless rage, having "Eternal Sunshined" the memory of Obamacare's origins from their own brains.

The rough outline of the last remaining plan is this:  Lindsey Graham is working with some dude named Bill Cassidy on a plan to block grant a bunch of money to the states.

Wait a minute...

Hang on...

That...

Uh...

I... don't think that memory got totally Eternal Sunshined...  I'm having a Montauk moment here.  Yeah, definitely a Montauk moment.*

Yes, back in January, Susan Collins put together a proposal for an Obamacare "replacement" based on turning a bunch of the funding into... block grants to the states!  Oh, and her co-author?  Bill Motherfuckin' Cassidy!

I wrote a bunch of stuff at the time about how, if the GOP were a normal party, they'd take Collins-Cassidy as their bill, pass that through the House and Senate, call it done, and move on.  But, I then quickly concluded this.  That's right.  Back in January, I wrote that Collins was in a weaker position than she should be with Collins-Cassidy because the GOP is filled with the people John Boehner called "knuckleheads," who can't accept anything less than total victory.  As a result, they end up with defeat.  And... here we are.

Except, here we aren't, because Cassidy isn't working with Collins anymore.  He's working with Lindsey Graham.  You know, that hypocritical, cowardly little twit who whined about how horrible "skinny repeal" would be if enacted, and then voted yes on it?  Yeah, that little dingleberry hanging from John McCain's ass.  John, for the love of all that is good and holy and clean, grab some fucking toilet paper!  (Or maybe three seashells...)

So, a few questions.

1)  Why Graham, and not Collins?

2)  What chance does Graham-Cassidy have?

3)  Has McCain used up the last of his integrity?

4)  Has Lamar Alexander short-circuited all of this?

The short answer to the first question is that Collins has basically been ejected from GOP negotiations.  Even if the bill winds up looking like what she would have wanted, she and Murkowski were treated so badly that the Republicans are going to have a hard time getting either of them back.  Those are some burned bridges, and they didn't have to be burned.  That said, Graham-Cassidy is more conservative than Collins-Cassidy.  The block grants are smaller, and that means less redistribution.  So, more conservative, and Collins may sincerely oppose it anyway.  Similarly, Murkowski may oppose it on policy grounds.  Regardless, Graham is starting from the same concept, making this whole thing kind of funny, but not "ha-ha" funny.

On the second question, there are a bunch of obstacles.  Collins and Murkowski are going to be hard to bring back into the fold after the mess of what McConnell tried to pull.  This is sort of a, "now you come crawling back to me," kind of thing, like I said above, with even Cassidy having turned his back on Collins, and then you've got the standard problem of the irrationality of the Freedom Caucus.  And then...

McCain.  Even aside from his medical issues, he made a big speech about regular order.  He also voted to open debate, and voted for a proposal that didn't go through regular order.  Yes, he eventually did the right thing, but McCain may have used up the last tiny shred of his integrity on that one moment.  If McCain, Collins and Murkowski tell McConnell that they won't vote for any bill that doesn't go through committee, so he better not try to pull that shit again, then Graham-Cassidy has to go through committee.  Can it survive a committee process?  That's tough.  McConnell's strategy has been predicated on the notion that no bill can survive open debate, mark-up and amendment procedures, and he may be right.  If so, then whether or not this thing has a chance depends on whether or not McCain can scrounge up any last vestiges of honor.  I wouldn't bet on it.  He may have shot his wad.

And of course, you may ask yourself, if Lindsey Graham thought that the block grant thing was such a great idea, why didn't he go to Collins and Cassidy back in January?  He could have saved everyone a lot of trouble and just started negotiations with them on the size of the grants, etc.  Little, fuckin' twerp...

But then, we get to the much harder question.  Lamar Alexander.  He is opening bipartisan negotiations.  What will come of those?  We have no idea.  Anything that does will rely mostly on Democratic votes.  It will be like with debt ceiling increases.  Why?  Republicans who vote for a bill to fix Obamacare will be Obamacare collaborators.  Even if there are just barely enough to pass such a bill, the chances of passage in the House will be slim because Paul Ryan would have to permit a vote.  If he allows such a bill to get a vote, he will face a revolt by the Freedom Caucus.  I'll elaborate on this later, but the basic premise is this.  The majority party in the House operates on the principle that if a majority of the majority party doesn't want a bill to pass, it doesn't get a vote.  A majority of the House Republicans won't want whatever Lamar Alexander produces to get a vote.  Therefore, Paul Ryan won't be allowed to let it get a vote.  If he does, the Freedom Caucus demands an ouster.  He gets Boehnered.

But, Alexander's process may shut down Graham-Cassidy anyway.

Where does that leave the GOP?  It is really hard to see how they accomplish anything, and really hard to see how anything bipartisan happens.  Trump could throw a temper tantrum and blow up the individual markets because he's an idiot child.  The consequences of that?  Bad.  He could also decide that he's so sick of "losing" that he needs to go to war somewhere.  I keep writing that, and I'm still serious about that.  If we were talking about a normal, rational, intelligent, serious president, this wouldn't be on the table, but this is Donald Trump.  The question has never been whether or not he has a level head.  Anyone with a brain knows that he doesn't.  The question has aways been whether or not those around him can prevent him from making decisions based on his own worst impulses.

Oh, and according to Lindsey Graham, Trump wants to go to war with North Korea, in case you missed that detail...


*Go watch the movie, damn it.