Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Brexit, Trump... Le Pen? What's the deal?

Britain voted to leave the EU.  Donald Trump won.  Another Le Pen made it to a run-off election in France.  One can more easily understand the rise of some of the right-wing nationalist movements in Greece that have developed in response to the economic conditions there, but the US, Britain and France?  One might be tempted, at this point, to think that there is something systematic going on here.  I thought I might run through some possibilities.

1)  Contagion.  Nice word, right?  The surprise victory of Brexit emboldens right-wing nationalist movements elsewhere, and helps their cause across borders.  Trump, for example, was openly supportive of Brexit, and the protectionist element of his campaign found common cause with the Brexiters.  Trump then wins.  Trump invited Le Pen to Trump Tower, and pretty much endorsed her.  These events happen in sequence, so perhaps there is a causal link.  Perhaps.  Evidence?  Not much since we haven't seen similar sequences in the past.  Democracy, after all, isn't very old, in historical terms, nor is the capacity for cross-national contagion, which requires the very kind of globalism that these hypocritical nitwits abhor.

2)  Some kind of international moment, whatever that means.  Somethin' in the water, or somethin' like that.  Notice how vague I'm being.  There is something about global economic or political conditions affecting Euro-American countries helping each of these movements.  The problem with this explanation is that the obvious answer just isn't true.  The claim of each of these movements is that immigration and global trade are just screwing over the native-born populations of the most economically developed countries.  Now, if you know anything about economics, you know that's bullshit and that this is all just racism with veils that range from thin to monomolecular, but that doesn't mean that there isn't something about the perception of immigration, globally at the moment, driving these parties and movements.  That's still hard to test.  At least survey data can help us here, cross-nationally.

3)  Coincidence.  A Republican was due to win our general election because a Democrat won the last two.  Even so, Trump should have lost because he's a rapist who lusts after his own daughter, and whom voters knew to be incompetent by a 2-1 margin going into the voting booth.  Why did they elect him?  James Comey, Director of the FBI, violated DoJ policy by intervening in the election two weeks before voting with some bullshit about how maybe he might indict Clinton even though there was no chance that he would.  That threw things off, even before we talk about Vladimir Putin.  Brexit was very close.  Le Pen?  She hasn't even won yet.  She only made the run-off.  Her dad, Adolph, did that once too, and the country freaked out so much that he got crushed, as she probably will too.  A fellow neo-Nazi candidate ran in the Netherlands, and everyone said not to count him out because "remember Trump and Brexit!" and he lost, just like the polls said.  Maybe this is nothing.

What's going on?  We don't know.

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

Given my obsession with jazz and the recent... news from France, a Django Reinhardt clip would seem to be in order, but Django was actually originally Belgian, although the French could never really accept Gypsies as truly French anyway.  (Bigotry takes many forms).  Lagrene made his early career in the Reinhardt tradition anyway.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A government shutdown?!

This is another post that I shouldn't have to write, yet here I am.  Brief shutdowns, in which Congress misses a deadline by a day aren't all that rare, in historic terms.  However, we have only had a couple of extended shutdowns in recent decades:  1995 and 2013.  Are we really about to have another?  During unified government?  Really?

A quick primer.  A shutdown, if brief, is no big deal.  It becomes a big deal if it drags on.  If Congress doesn't appropriate money to an agency, it runs out of money.  It can't pay employees, so employees have to be furloughed, beginning with the least-essential employees.  As time passes, more and more essential services get cut.  In 1995, Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) thought that a government shutdown would be a great tool to make the point that government services were pointless anyway, so he wandered around saying, "the government's shut down, do you miss it yet?"  Eventually, they did.  If you need a passport and can't get it, you miss the government, as an example.  In 1995, Republicans, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, shut down the government with a demand that Clinton agree to cut social spending, particularly on healthcare.  Clinton refused.  Republicans took the blame and caved.  In 2013, Republicans, pressured by Ted Cruz and against the advice of John Boehner (who led a failed attempt to topple Newt Gingrich in the summer of 1997 for Newt's idiotic "leadership"), shut down the government demanding that Obama agree to cuts in healthcare spending.  Obama refused.  Republicans took the blame and caved.  "Rarely is the question asked: is our Republicans learning?"

OK, see the pattern in 1995 and 2013?  Congress and a president of opposing parties with different preferences over spending.  Right now, we have Congress and a president of the same party.  The point of a standoff is you hope to win by having the public blame the other party.  You can't blame the other party when the other party has no power.  This brings us back to what we have been seeing over, and over, and over again.  The internecine warfare within the Republican Party, and the struggle to prove that I'm more conservative than you are, which was really what the 2013 shutdown was about.  When Ted Cruz pushed the shutdown, he really did know it would fail.  The point was to call John Boehner a sellout when Boehner was forced to cave.

Right now, the Republican Party has to decide whether or not to shut down the government.  If it does, the question is not which party takes the blame, but which faction within the party takes the blame.  Here's the thing.  The establishment faction-- the Paul Ryan faction-- is so afraid of the consequences of a shutdown that they just need to figure out how to cave.  This brings us back to a reference I have made a few times:  Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins' Legislative Leviathan.  Short version:  party leaders structure the agenda in such a way as to unify the party around bills that give them a good brand name.  Shutdowns hurt the national brand, and that's what Paul Ryan can't allow.  Whatever internal fights he has to lose, he'll lose, just like Boehner did.  Otherwise, the party loses.  That's why he didn't want the job in the first place.

Being Speaker right now sucks.

And that's before we talk about how Mexico was supposed to pay for that wall, which no intelligent person ever believed...

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

The original version is from "Which Way To Here" (not currently up on youtube).  Incidentally, Anders Osborne was born in Sweden, but he's a US citizen.  He moved to New Orleans (that should be obvious from the sound of the music) long ago.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Assorted comments regarding the March for Science


I like science.  A bunch of thoughts:

1)  Several months ago, the faculty at Case Western Reserve University received an email from our University President instructing us to download any data sets containing sensitive data from federal databases in case the government were to decide to cut off access.  She meant mostly climate data because, well, Trump and his climate bullshit.  Please refer to the following Onion article:  "Fearful Americans Stockpiling Facts Before Federal Government Comes To Take Them Away."  I'm not fucking kidding you.  I got that email from my University President.  I was seriously told to stockpile my facts.  The Onion is practically a real newspaper at this point.

2)  Science is a method, not a subject.  This is a line that some of my students probably get sick of hearing from me, but it has several implications.  First, it is a defense of political science as a science.  The application of the scientific method to questions about politics.  That kind of matters to me.  We get funding through NSF, and some asshole occasionally comes along to try to cut that off, as former Senator Tom Coburn did a few years ago.  It would be nice if the people marching didn't sneer at the social sciences.  I kinda suspect that some of them probably do.  FUCK THEM.  To paraphrase an old poem, first they came for political science, and I did not speak out because I was not a political scientist...

3)  Next implication of the observation that science is a method, not a subject.  It is not, actually, knowledge, despite the funny sign above, and today's music clip.  It is not a body of findings.  Remember the humble phlogiston.  You probably don't.  The phlogiston was the particle that was supposedly lost by wood, metal, paper, etc. in the process of either rusting or burning.  Problem:  Antoine Lavoisier weighed the metal after it rusted and found that it got heavier, not lighter when it rusted.  It wasn't losing phlogistons.  But, phlogiston theory was pretty prominent until Lavoisier came along and decided to weigh the damned metal.  Something you think is true right now is a phlogiston.  A piece of rusted metal that hasn't been weighed yet.  The field of psychology is going through a replication crisis...

4)  What are the critical aspects of that method?  Here's the kicker for most people:  science is evidence-based, and intrinsically skeptical.  You must reject a claim in the absence of evidence.  Belief without evidence is a violation of science.  There are... lots of ways that this society venerates belief without evidence.  Do you believe without evidence?  Do you say "yay science!" and then compartmentalize?

5)  While lefties can be sanctimonious about the Clinton versus Trump comparison with regard to science, there are some anti-science leanings on the left.  They just aren't as prominent, and the divisions aren't as cleanly partisan.  But the left doesn't get off scot-free here.  Jill Fucking Stein.  An anti-vaccination doctor.


[pausing for moment to control temper]


I occasionally teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  Yes, really.  Much of the class is devoted to bashing Andrew Fucking Wakefield, the fraud doctor who murdered people with bullshit by faking data in a bullshit study that claimed that vaccines caused autism.  The study was retracted, and his license was revoked, but a lot of people bought into that shit.  And children died.  And it played into certain lefties' leanings, particularly if they have certain new age, hippy-dippy bullshit beliefs about medicine.  This is a mere sample, but a demonstration of how there are some anti-science factions among the left.  You'll find others if you wander the isles of Whole Paycheck.

6)  And while I'm at it, at some point soon, I'll address the shit happening at Berkeley, where I got my Ph.D.  Another recent Onion gem:  "Berkeley Campus on Lockdown After Loose Pages From 'Wall Street Journal' Found On Park Bench.'"  What elevates science is that those of us who use the scientific method change our interpretations of the world in response to evidence.  That requires reading and thinking about the world from different perspectives.  With respect to climate change, the science is pretty much in on that, and the burden of evidence for those denying conventional science is so high that I'm just not paying much attention to them anymore.  Whether the formerly-Republican position of cap-and-trade is an appropriate response, or simply dumping money into research on carbon capture, or something else is an open and ideological question, but when someone says that climate change is a Chinese hoax, they don't deserve to have their opinions on the matter heard out.

Economics, though, is a heavily contested discipline, and if you aren't paying attention to people who disagree with you, then you run the risk of being the last advocate of phlogiston theory.  To be fair to Berkeley, the protests tend to be more about race issues than economics, to the degree that they are separable (which is another matter...), but if you are going to position yourself as a defender of science, then you need to be very careful about when you stop listening to people.

I think you are pretty safe not listening to Donald Trump.  Unfortunately, I have to.  It's my job.  Sometimes, I hate my job.  Cable news sucks.  Wall Street Journal?  You kind of need to pay attention to them.  Of course, I gave Berkeley a hard time for bothering to invite future NAMBLA President Milo Hasbeen, which was one of the incidents that sparked protest, along with giving the protesters a hard time.  Still, be very careful about deciding who doesn't get to be heard anymore.  Science requires never being certain that you are right, and that means leaving open the possibility that even the most idiotic-sounding person might be right.

Unless that person is Trump.

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Combining a few minor news stories: political identity and musical tastes

You may have noticed a few things here.  1)  I am obsessed with music.  2)  I have eclectic tastes.

Recently, a pair of hack musicians visited the White House, along with Sarah Palin:  famed child-molester Ted Nugent and... uh... Kid Rock.  Nugent has been a Republican icon for a while, mainly for his association with the NRA, but it means that listening to The Nuge is a kind of statement of Republican identity.

The second story, also kind of obscure, won't matter to you unless you are a user of Bose headphones.  The newest iteration of their Quiet Comfort noise-canceling headphones may or may not track things like your music listening habits and report them back to Bose if you are dumb enough to install their "app" on your device.  That could give them hints about things like your politics.  Yes, more personal things too, but this is a blog about politics.  Mostly.

And yet.

My genre tastes range from jazz and blues (the Friday series and Monday series) to country and bluegrass (the Saturday series and Sunday series) and far more obscure than that.  Jazz and blues listeners tend to lean left (yes, this is measurable), whereas country and bluegrass listeners lean right.  If Bose (no, I'm not dumb enough to load their app, but I do like their headphones) were to try to track my listening and figure out my politics, they'd get confused.  And youtube is definitely confused.  I can tell from the ads I get.  I dug up Junior Brown for today's music clip, and Buddy Emmons for yesterday.  Other days, I'm pulling up clips of Charles Mingus or Miles Davis, followed by Merle Travis or Doc Watson.  My musical tastes don't make algorithmic sense, politically speaking. (However, there is a fertile musical subculture mixing jazz, country and bluegrass associated with David "Dawg" Grisman, sometimes called "dawg" music.  I love it.)

With the "If you don't love __, you hate America" thing, I'm playing with that.  The phrasing is intentionally jingoistic to contrast with what one might expect from both a professor's blog (note all the Carlin-speak here), and the origin of the series.  The series began with Friday posts for jazz.  Jazz, being associated mostly with lefty politics given its racial history, not to mention the overt politics of musicians like Charles Mingus.  That contrast works for the Monday blues series too.  When I expanded the series to a Saturday post with country-- a genre which I sincerely love-- I did it with the snark of contracting America to 'mer'ca so that the right-leaning jingoism of the title played with the left-leaning cultural elitism of demeaning rural accents.  The Tuesday music series subverts the whole jingoism thing, then, by playing music from Turkey or wherever the hell else is relevant (or whatever the hell else I feel like playing that day).

If you have to explain a joke, it isn't funny, and if I needed to explain this, then I wasn't structuring the series well, but fuck it.  It's just a bunch of music clips, and this is just a Saturday morning rant.

Ted Nugent sucks.  But, if your musical tastes are too connected to a political identity, then something is wrong with how you listen to music.  That sort of brings me back to the title of the blog.  Be unmutual.

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

For anyone listening, that isn't actually a steel guitar proper.  Junior Brown plays a "guit-steel," which combines a telecaster with a steel guitar set-up onto one Frankenstein contraption so that he can switch back and forth between the two. The still-photos show him holding it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

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

Tonight, we feature an instrument not normally associated with jazz:  the steel guitar.  Played lap-style, with a steel bar that slides across the strings, you get a very different sound than a conventionally fretted guitar.  The steel guitar has its origins in Hawaii.  From Hawaiian music, it moved into country and bluegrass, although its association with the latter is in the form of the acoustic "dobro," which is actually a brand name from the company founded by the Dopyera Brothers (Do-Bro).  There are a few great virtuosos of the steel guitar in country music history, like Speedy West, but it was Buddy Emmons who pushed the instrument beyond traditional country music, both on his own, and in his work with musicians like Danny Gatton and Lenny Breau.  He even recorded an album of straight-ahead jazz, strangely spelling his name, "Buddie" rather than "Buddy."  Here's a clip of some jazz played on a steel guitar.

All of which is to say that Hawaii is a fucking state, and it's all American music.

Just sayin'.

Reviving an Obamacare repeal?!

As you may have read, the House is trying to revive a repeal-and-replace plan, based on a rough outline of a deal between the Freedom Caucus and the somewhat more moderate "Tuesday Group."  I won't get into the details because they don't matter.  Remember that the basic mechanics of haven't changed.  If the last vote had to be canceled because the Freedom Caucus wasn't on board, then there isn't anything that can pass both the House and the Senate because passing the House requires satisfying the far-right Freedom Caucus, and getting them means losing Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and a few more in the Senate, probably including Rob Portman, given that he signed a letter indicating that he couldn't abide the Medicaid cuts in the previous House version.  Collins, Murkowski, Portman and the other cosignatories of his letter won't be on board with a Freedom Caucus-approved House plan, and if the Freedom Caucus won't vote for Collins-Cassidy, that's it.  Obamacare stays.  Obamacare remains unless either the Freedom Caucus moves left, or Collins and her group move right.  The Freedom Caucus isn't moving left, and we aren't hearing so much as a peep from Collins, who might be leaving the Senate and running for Governor of Maine, taking away any threat of retaliation if she refuses to yield.

So, why are the House Republicans now trying to revive a bill?

1)  Trump.  Trump is staring down the end of this silly "100 days" thing, and recognizing the fact that he has no legislative accomplishments to show for it.  Yes, that makes him a failure.  The 100 day period doesn't really mean anything, but it will lead to some news coverage that he won't like, and Trump really only cares about how he is covered in the news.  (And SNL...).  If Congress isn't even working on healthcare, he'll look even worse.

2)  Not everyone in Congress understands just how deadlocked the situation is.  By short-circuiting the normal committee hearings, the Republicans short-circuited normal deliberations which would have revealed the internal divisions within the party.  The failed/canceled vote was a shock to the party because they didn't bother with normal politicking.  At least now there are deliberations between caucuses.  That is no substitute for actual committee work, but they have at least learned a lesson, and they think they can change the outcome.  Give them a higher probability of success in the House when the Tuesday Group and the Freedom Caucus agree, although...

3)  We have a bicameral legislature, but there isn't a lot of cross-chamber discussion.  Mostly, Representatives talk to Representatives, and Senators talk to Senators, and since the biggest problem for Republicans is that the Senate can't pass a House bill, and the House can't pass a Senate bill, most of the people involved don't have a clue what the real problem for them is.  So, they've lost sight of what they actually need to do.

4)  This is still theater.  As I have been saying all along, what Republicans would do if they really wanted to affect policy is a series of small-bore bills.  Repeal the employer mandate.  Repeal the medical device tax.  That type of thing.  One at a time, each of these is manageable, probably somewhat bipartisan, a public relations win, and a way to manage expectations.  Why haven't they done so?



Fear that someone would come along and accuse them of being Vichy Republicans.

Republicans are stuck, though.  They are trapped into continually "trying" to pass bills that can't pass, and not engaging in the normal legislative process.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Random Thursday music

Did you know that Frank Zappa was one of the greatest guitarists in rock history?  I don't have a Thursday series, and I've been going for non-pop genres, but today, what the hell!  I've got an excuse for this from one of my heroes.

Jason Chaff... oh, fuck that. Bill O'Reilly.

When Jason Chaffetz announced that he wasn't going to run for reelection yesterday, I thought I had this morning's post vaguely, kinda written in my head.  Aaaaaaand then other news happened.

My primary point about Bill O'Reilly is the counterintuitive one.  In a perverse way, he encourages and enables the worst impulses of the left.  Yes, you read that right.

The obvious point everyone makes about O'Reilly is that he is/was the standard-bearer for Fox's "fair and balanced" bullshit.  He is a conservative Republican whose primary goal has been to advance the Republican Party's electoral interests, and the policy goals of the social wing of the conservative movement.  Very few people are straight-down-the-line liberals or straight-down-the-line conservatives, and O'Reilly loved to play up any deviation he had from the Limbaugh crowd in order to pretend that he was a non-ideological, non-partisan, muckraker-style guy who just called bullshit on anyone who deserved it.  But... no.  Anyone with a brain could see through him.

So, he just helped push people further to the right, right?  Give people conservative-leaning news, tell them it's the straight truth, and you will reinforce their biases, right?  Maybe, but the thing is that even though O'Reilly's ratings were comparatively good, that's only compared to other cable news programming.  Yes, he got better ratings than whatever crap was on CNN or MSNBC, and better ratings than what you should be watching, which is The Expanse (holy shit, is that show great, right?!), but it is still a very small group of people who watch, in raw numbers.  And even among them, measuring the effect is difficult.

I am concerned about O'Reilly's broader effect, and I've written about the effect of a complex media environment on the signals that voters receive.  Here's the problem:  Politician says X.  Journalist calls bullshit.  One of two things is true.  Either the politician is full of shit, or the journalist is a shill for the opposing party.  If the voter has strong "priors" that the parties are basically equal, and knows that the media environment contains partisan shills, many of whom don't even admit what they are (e.g. O'Reilly), then when a journalist tries to call bullshit on our politician, the rational thing for our voter to do is to conclude that the journalist is a shill for the opposing party.  Even if the politician really is full of shit.  That's what comes out of the math in the paper linked above.

See the problem?  The existence of shills for Party A makes it easier for Party B to get away with shenanigans because any time Party B is called on something, they just accuse the journalists of being shills for Party A, even when the journalists are just honest watchdogs trying to do their jobs.

So, Bill O'Reilly was a shill for the Republicans, pretending otherwise.  He at least had the potential to encourage Democrats to lie and cheat, and accuse any journalist who called them on it of being thinly-veiled Republican shills, thereby getting away with it.  After all... Bill O'fuckin'Reilly!

Empirically, has Bill O'Reilly had this effect?  Not as much as effects running in the other direction.  Republicans have been playing the "liberal media bias" game for much longer.  They really started ramping it up with Nixon, and it takes time.  Democrats would do well to learn some lessons from that process, strategically.  It is worth keeping in mind, though, that few people actually watched O'Reilly.  His effect on the media landscape, though, is what matters.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Special elections with unusual rules, and shiny things

Here we go again.  Georgia had a special election for a House district to replace Tom Price.  The Democrat did better than expected.  Let's all read way too much into it!

I've already written something recently about why we shouldn't read too much into a special election, so I won't rehash that here, but of course, Ossoff didn't even lose, making this case different still.  This is a weird system.  Slightly less weird than you may think, though.  It is actually pretty much the system they use in Louisiana, which we call the "jungle primary."  In Louisiana, everyone runs on the same ticket in the primary.  If anyone gets over 50%, that person wins without a general election.  Otherwise, the top two candidates face each other in the general, even if they are the same party.  Why does Louisiana use a weird system?  Because they are Louisiana, and they were drunk when they designed the system.  Regardless, Georgia was using a weird rule.  Add that to the problem that special elections are intrinsically weird and difficult to use as a basis for generalizations and the Ossoff-Handel situation really doesn't tell us much about anything.

But holy shit!  An election!  Everyone pay attention!  Why?  It's a shiny thing.  We have 435 House districts.  This is one of them, and what happened yesterday was one stage in determining one seat, telling us very little about 2018.  It's just all we have right now, and elections junkies (like me) just need constant stimulation.  It's a sickness.

At least I admit I have a problem.  If you are reading this, you do too.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Protests about Trump's taxes

America has a long history of protest movements.  Many have real accomplishments to show for their efforts.  The civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, the suffrage movement, and so on.  The effects of the tea party protests are harder to measure.  Their primary goal in 2009 and 2010 was to stop the passage of Obamacare, and, um, they failed.  Other than that, one might assert that they had a broader goal of moving the Republican Party to the right, but if we look at congressional voting behavior, as Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal have been doing (the guys who came up with those "NOMINATE" scores I always reference), that trend began in the 1970s, in which case the effects of the tea party are murkier.

And then there are the dumber protests.  The "occupy" nonsense comes to mind.  What was their goal?  Something about a "conversation" about "inequality," if you remember the rhetoric, back when that was a thing.  Has anything come of that?  No.  Why not?  Because it wasn't a real goal.  Desegregation was a real goal.  Achieved?  De jure, yes.  De facto, um, less so.  Ending the Vietnam War was a real goal.  It was achieved.  Having a "conversation" about "inequality" was a bullshit goal.  That's why the "occupy" protests amounted to nothing.

The problem here is one that social scientists have been grappling with for years.  Mancur Olson wrote arguably the most important work relevant here:  The Logic of Collective Action.  Ever hear of the "collective action problem?"  He's the dude.  That's the book.  Participating in a real movement involves paying real costs.  However, your contribution to the movement makes no difference in its likelihood of success, and if it is a real movement, you could lose something, so it isn't rational to participate.  Scholars have been thinking about that for years.  Focusing on the civil rights movement, Dennis Chong wrote... Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement.  His argument was that early organizers absorbed most of the initial risk, allowing later participants to join at a lower risk with a higher likelihood of success.  Good book.  Read it.

All of this is predicated, though, on a movement with real costs and a real goal to be achieved.  These silly protests to get Trump to release his taxes have neither.  They are feel-good events for the participants, who risk nothing and have no chance of achieving anything.

Here are the likeliest scenarios for us seeing Trump's tax returns:

1)  Democrats get control of one chamber of Congress in 2018 after Trump does something stupid enough to cause a wave election, subpoena them from the IRS, and somebody leaks them.

2)  Trump pisses off Putin, and Putin leaks them.  (See what I'm doing there?)

This isn't even going to continue as a real issue.  Trump is President.  He is facing real issues, like Syria, North Korea, whatever happens in the economy over the next four years, the possibility of a state with no Obamacare insurers, and who knows whatever other crises, because crises always occur.

Some protests are bullshit.  I'm callin' bullshit here.  If you want to read the political science behind real protests, go read Chong.

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

Turkey... had an election.  Their music is great.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Calm down about North Korea (mostly)

Once you get nukes, you are safe from attack.  Why?  Simple.  Even if your delivery system sucks, a low probability of it working is too high a risk to take for attacking you and risking a successful retaliation.  Their latest missile test failed.  Again.  Make a juvenile joke about the names of their missiles.  Go on.  (Look it up, if you have to).  That doesn't mean we can count on all of their missiles failing all of the time, and that means we still can't risk attacking them.  Even if we could count on their long-range missiles failing, we have allies nearby.  Why did North Korea put up with sanctions for so long to develop nuclear weapons?  Because they knew that once they got 'em, they'd be safe.  And they are.  Trump is the dumbest motherfucker (or wannabe-daughterfucker) to ever get his tiny, tiny hands on nuclear weapons, and even he isn't dumb enough to launch an unprovoked first strike on a nuclear-armed country, and Kim Jong Un certainly isn't dumb enough to provoke anything.

This sabre-rattling?  It happens every few years.  It sounds worse right now because of Trump, and because he just shot some missiles at Syria, and dropped a MOAB on Afghanistan, but that's about it.

However, with very little information, it is worth saying this:  the failed missile test puts Kim's regime in danger from within.  If his capacity to deter attacks is questioned by those within North Korea, then he loses his support structure, and those missile tests haven't gone well lately.  So, OK, here's a real danger.  A country with a couple of nukes might fall into chaos if the psycho dictator loses control of his generals because failed missile tests convince them that he can't deter attacks.

Of course, that's just raw speculation.  We don't really know enough to study the internal dynamics that might lead to a coup.  Still, go read some recent works by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, if you are curious about this type of problem.

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

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Representative who insists that he pays his own salary

Perhaps you've seen this clip circulating around...

Rep. Markwayne Mullin from Oklahoma is confronted by an angry constituent at a town hall, who insists that they pay his salary, and he angrily responds that he pays his own salary, seeing the position as a service, not a job.  I'll refrain from commenting on the nonsense of "bullcrap" rather than"bullshit" as though the latter is offensive whereas the former is not, even though they mean the same fucking thing, making the former an insult to the intelligence of the listener.  OK, so that counts as a comment.  Moving on.

Anyway, I wrote a book about this!  Hiring and Firing Public Officials: Rethinking the Purpose of Elections.  The gist was this:  lots of people think of an election like a market.  Candidates are like firms, so we want close elections for the same reason that we want competitive markets.  Non-sequitur.  An election is nothing like a market.  An election is just a way of hiring someone to do a job.  A re-election campaign is a determination of whether or not to renew a contract.  You don't want to flip a coin to decide whether or not to fire a person.  You want a threat to fire a person who does a bad job.  If the threat doesn't work, you want to fire that person deterministically.  If it does work, you want to renew that person's contract deterministically.  Flipping a coin?  Never.  Competitive elections don't make sense.

The threat only works, though, if the person in the job kinda needs/wants it.  Notice how Markwayne Mullin is taking the take-this-job-and-shove-it attitude here?  Yeah.  Sort of throws a wrench in things, doesn't it?

Now, there is a debate among political theorists about what representation should be:  should representatives be "delegates," who reflect the preferences of their constituents (which is actually mathematically impossible, but that's another problem that I have discussed a few times), or should they be "trustees," and just do what they think is in the constituents' best interests, regardless of what constituents want?  Mullin is taking a "trustee" attitude.  Notice how people react when you do that in an... impolitic way.

If you want Representatives who at least try to act as delegates, though, they kind of need to be dependent on the job for a salary, and think of the position as a job.


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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The wreckage of Trump's broken promises

As Trump continues to break promise after promise at a record rate, it is worth taking stock of how unusual this is.

Politicians keep their promises.  Yes, you read that right.  What makes Trump different, as an outsider, is his propensity for dishonorable behavior.  Politicians, real ones, make promises on the campaign trail, and make honest efforts to keep them.  When their promises aren't kept, it is due to forces beyond their control.  It is the outsider-- the non-politician-- who speaks with a forked tongue.  Branding China a currency manipulator?  Nah.  Never mind.

Jeff Fishel's work here on presidents in particular has been pretty consistent.  You can track promises, and presidents generally make an honest effort to keep them.  Why?  This is where I reference the more general work on politicians.  In particular, I frequently recommend that people read Jacobs and Shapiro's Politicians Don't Pander.  The basic argument is that rather than taking insincere positions on the campaign trail, politicians look for ways to make their sincere positions electorally palatable in order to sway the electorate.

See the problem?  Trump doesn't have any sincere policy positions.  That's what separates him from a politician.  If you look at congressional voting behavior, one of the things we learn from the behavior of retiring legislators is that they vote pretty much the same way after they decide to retire as they did throughout their careers.  Why?  Their voting behavior was basically sincere all along.  The original research on this was done by John Lott, and it pissed a lot(t!) of people off.  In fact, in one of my favorite examples of writing nonsense, Larry Rothenberg and Mitchell Sanders published a 2000 article in AJPS trying to debunk Lott's findings.  They showed that retiring legislators participate in votes less frequently (Lott didn't account for that), but that the degree of ideological movement was about the same degree as what Lott always found in his many publications on the topic.  But, Rothenberg and Sanders tried to make a much bigger deal of it than Lott.  The magnitude of the effect they found was tiny, just like Lott.  I call bullshit.

See, most politicians really do have policy beliefs, and they really do act on them.  Trump isn't a politician.  He didn't know what a "currency manipulator" was.  Someone just fed him the line.  It seemed to work for him during the campaign, as far as he could tell, so he kept using it.  If he were a real politician, he would have had a real belief, and he'd stick to it.  Instead, he says what he thinks will work on the campaign trail, and abandons a policy as soon as it gets inconvenient.  So, all those models of sincerity?

This is what happens, Larry (and Mitchell), when you elect and outsider.

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

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

Should I just re-name this series, "If you don't love Charles Mingus, you hate America?"  By album count, he isn't the most over-represented in my collection (that would be Rahsaan Roland Kirk, followed by John Coltrane), but somehow, he seems to be the right guy to play a little too frequently...

Trump, Chinese currency manipulation and the MOAB

Yup, this will be another post about Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  Remember Schelling?  This is a blog about Schelling.  Or, it might as well be.

I covered a lot about Schelling in my "Political science & craziness" series last August, but the key point for today is that bargaining power is all about demonstrating the credibility of your threats, and you demonstrate the credibility of your threats by carrying them out.  That's only difficult when carrying out your threats hurts you.  That's when it is most important to carry out your threats to give your future threats credibility.

On the campaign trail, Trump promised/threatened to issue a formal declaration that China was a "currency manipulator" as soon as he came into office.  The claim was that China was artificially depressing the value of its currency to give it a trade advantage.  There were two problems with this.  First, it hadn't been true in years, and second, doing so would sour relations with an important country.

See where I'm going with this?  If you want to demonstrate the credibility of your threats, Schelling-style, you kind of have to follow through on that one.  It will hurt, but that's... the point.  It may have been a stupid promise to make (not as dumb as promising to make Mexico pay for the wall, but, well, c'mon...), but at least it is within Trump's power to follow through.  The fact that it hurts to follow through is the point.  It would show credibility.  Trump decided not to follow through.  In doing so, he undercut his credibility.  He made the right policy decision, but at the cost of his credibility.

Then, there's the MOAB.  The "mother of all bombs."  Trump dropped a big bomb on Afghanistan.  He thinks this shows credibility.  In Schelling's terms, it doesn't.  Why not?  Because it doesn't hurt him to do it.  He incurs no cost.  He just thought it would make him look like a tough guy.  The point about demonstrating credibility, in Schelling's terms, is that it is hard to do when carrying out a threat hurts you.  On China and the MOAB, Trump got it backwards.  Branding China as a currency manipulator, even though it would have been wrong and stupid, is what would have demonstrated credibility, not dropping a MOAB.  He dropped a MOAB instead of following through on a promise/threat that would have hurt him to carry out.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Warnings on special elections

Yes, Kansas had a special election for a House seat.  It was closer than expected.  Don't make more of it than there is.  Here's what we have seen, historically.

1)  In midterm elections, the House swings against the party of the president, barring weird stuff, like 9/11, or impeaching the president for a blowjob.  The Democrats did better than expected, and we expect the Democrats to pick up seats in 2018.  Foreshadowing?  ....   Don't expect a massive electoral landslide in 2018 without something like an economic crash, a yugely unpopular war, or something on that scale.

2)  Weird things happen in one election (hey, what's pussy-grabber from Celebrity Apprentice doing in the Oval Office?).  Political science is about finding patterns, which come from multiple observations so that random noise cancels out.  With one election, you can't tell if it is random noise or not.

3)  It is April.  2017.  A lot can happen between now and November, 2018.  The range of possibilities for a midterm swing is pretty large, and while the Democratss are hoping for something like 2010 in reverse, a big terrorist attack could have the opposite effect.  The Republicans picked up a few seats in 2002.  November 2018 is a long way away.

4)  Voters can respond to expectations in weird ways.  The special election in Kansas was expected to go GOP because, well, it's fucking Kansas.  Combine that strong expectation with high levels of attention and you get weird cross-pressures.  Normally, in a non-competitive seat, nobody at all pays any attention to the race because it just isn't competitive.  So, the dominant party just wins in a low-profile, low-turnout all-around election.  In a special election, with all eyes on the race, well, you ever act differently when you feel like you're being watched?  Democrats see polls where they think they might have a sliver of a chance, and they get mobilized, and you get an effect of having been observed which wouldn't be the case had the election been held normally.

The Kansas special election was closer than expected.  What does it mean?

It means... I don't know.  It is one observation.  Don't make too much of one special election.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Susan Collins might leave the Senate, and other observations on "moderates"

Amid the international messes with Russia, Syria, North Korea and wherever else, this one may have evaded your attention.  Susan Collins may leave the Senate.  She is considering a gubernatorial campaign in Maine.  Also, something about rain in Spain.

Collins is dead-center of the ideological spectrum, according to the NOMINATE scale we use in political science, based on congressional roll call votes.  The first dimension of the measurement system, which is basically liberalism/conservatism, ranges from -1 to +1, and she is at .0370, and always has been basically at 0 (as was her former colleague, Olympia Snowe).  One can speculate about her reasons for wanting to leave-- fear of a primary (or maybe general election threat), general disgust with the Senate and national politics right now, real desire to be Governor, take your pick.  At least she isn't talking about spending more time with her family (the lie that politicians use when they are ducking out of town to avoid a scandal).

I have no insight into why she might be more interested in the Governor's office.  Rather, I have a few comments on the praise that often gets heaped upon moderates.  In a political system infested with wingnuts* and moonbats**, and where wingnuts in particular seem to be a force for dysfunction on an unprecedented scale, one might be tempted to think, "oh, if only we had more moderates!  Oh, for more Susan Collinseses!"  By the way, [sic].  Yeah, lots of people think that everything would be just hunky-dory if only we had more moderates in DC.  Let's pick that apart, shall we?

In my opinion, we've had two truly great Speakers of the House in the last decade.  I've been a big fan of both Nancy Pelosi and, yes, John Boehner for a long time.  He was at odds with the wingnuts in his party, whom he called "knuckleheads," and he was never a cause of dysfunction.  He's the guy who saved us from a debt default when the knuckleheads in his party tried to force one.  And he was in no way moderate.  On that -1 to +1 scale?  .7480.  He just wasn't a, well, knucklehead.

So what is a moderate, anyway?  Think of two issues:  redistribution and abortion.  To be liberal is to be a redistributionist and pro-choice.  To be conservative is to be pro-life and anti-redistribution.  So, how about Catholics?  The ones who actually follow church doctrine?  That would be pro-redistribution, and pro-life.  Moderate, right?  What about libertarians?  Pro-choice and anti-redistribution.  Moderate, too, right?  So, Catholics and libertarians are both "moderate," even though they agree on nothing.  "Moderate" is kind of meaningless.

I've been making this kind of observation for a while when I teach about ideology, and interestingly, at last week's conference, Hans Noel from Georgetown presented a paper showing that activists actually placed Susan Collins to the left of West Virginia Democrat, Joe Manchin, presumably because of their abortion positions.  Collins is a pro-choice Republican who is more opposed to Obamacare than Manchin.  Abortion vs. redistribution.  Abortion wins, in activists' eyes.  Cool, right?  I'd link to Noel's paper if the conference web site allowed it, but they don't, so if you want it, go spam Hans Noel.  The paper is called "Is John McCain more conservative than Rand Paul?  Using activists' pairwise comparisons to measure ideology."

Then there's who the moderates used to be, back when Congress was full of 'em, in the mid-20th Century, as opposed to what Congress is full of now.  Old southern racists.  Remember them?  Do we want a Congress filled with those motherfuckers?  Sorry, I didn't mean "motherfuckers."  I meant housekeeper-fuckers.  Strom Thurmond.  What a guy.  Go read about that racist piece of shit.

Anyway, what's the big deal with moderates?  Would you rather have John Boehner, or that racist piece of shit, Strom Thurmond?  You know, the guy who set the all-time filibuster record by filibustering civil rights legislation.  In the 84th Senate, Thurmond's NOMINATE score was 0.1070.  Remember the scale:  -1 to +1.  That's close to dead-center!  He was a moderate!  A racist piece of shit, sure, but a moderate!

The complication is that this was back when a simple, one-dimensional model wasn't enough to explain what happened in Congress.  According to Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, who developed the NOMINATE score, you needed at least two dimensions back then, with that second dimension explaining civil rights type stuff.  It wasn't all about simple liberalism and conservatism back then.  What happened?  Looooooong story...  Probably for a series of upcoming posts...

So, what does it mean to be a moderate?  Potentially a lot of things, not all of them good, and this is before we get into the idea of a person who is just easily swayed and generally unprincipled.  If someone wants to praise Susan Collins on her merits, then fine.  I'll continue to praise John Boehner on his merits as a statesman while pointing out how dysfunctional the GOP currently is, even though ideologically, he wasn't that far from the wingnuts who kicked him out of office because they were too fucking stupid to understand what they were doing.  And anyone who would prefer Strom Thurmond circa 1956 (i.e. the moderate) to John Boehner should remember what happened to Trent Lott.  Trent Lott was forced to step down as Majority Leader of the Senate in 2002 for telling everyone that we would have been better off had Thurmond won the White House.  In 1948.  When he ran on a segregationist platform.  Back then, in a liberal/conservative sense, Thurmond was a moderate.

Susan Collins is a moderate.  She may be leaving the Senate.  Whether that is good or bad has nothing to do with the fact that she is moderate.  Enough with the knee-jerk worship of moderates.

*Wingnut:  Right-wing wacko, e.g. Louie Gohmert.

**Moonbat:  Left-wing wacko, e.g. Bernie Sanders.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Congress isn't doing anything (and what I was doing last week)

I spent the latter part of last week at the Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference in Chicago.  Most of what happens at these things is that people present new, and not-very-well-formed research projects.  (That, and people schmoozing in the Palmer House lobby).

So guess what I did!  (I didn't schmooze).

Unfortunately, I can't add a link to the conference paper suppository (they call it a "repository") because the site is gated, but here's the gist.  I work in an area called spatial theory.  In legislative politics, we put everyone on a line from liberal to conservative.  We then put policies on a line from liberal to conservative.  If a bill is closer to a legislator's ideal point than the status quo, they vote yes.  Otherwise, they vote no.  So, if my ideal point is .5, and the status quo is .3, I'll vote for a bill at .6, but against a bill at .8.

That's not how everyone in Congress acts, though.  People in the House Freedom Caucus, for example, ignore what policy is now, and just vote "no" (or threaten to do so) unless the bill is basically perfect, as far as they are concerned, meaning arbitrarily close to their "ideal points," in spatial theory jargon.  So, if the status quo is at -0.2, and their ideal points are at .8, they will vote no on a bill that moves policy to .5, even though it is way better, from their perspective, than -0.2, because it isn't close enough to .8.  Rationally, that... isn't.

What happens when people in Congress act this way?

Nothing.  Here's the implication:  unless you have a cluster of legislators of 50%+1, who are very close together, then absolutely nothing can possibly pass because some jackass will complain about the bill being not absolutely perfect and vote "no."

This isn't how legislatures normally work.  This is what happens when legislators treat the roll call voting process, not as a rational, policy-making choice, but as an expressive act.  If you don't treat roll call voting as a policy-making choice, you won't make policy.

So guess who isn't making policy!

Anyway, the paper was "Expressive Voting and Legislative Gridlock: The Changing Meaning of a No Vote."  I'd link to it if it weren't gated.  I'll put it up on my faculty page at some point, but I can email it to anyone who asks.

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

This one is stuck in my head...

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Syria means for Trump and Putin

One of the most "interesting" problems in the Trump Presidency is the question of the nature of his relationship to Putin.  I've been struggling since January with how much stock to put in the notion that Putin really has blackmail material on Trump, and while it's fun to joke, we're past joking when the missiles start flying.  Trump launched missiles at one of Putin's boys.  What does this mean?

Back in January, when the news of the "dossier" first came out, I wrote this, essentially saying that while Russia probably did have at least a bit of dirt on Trump, Putin probably wouldn't try to use it overtly.  Once you turn to explicit blackmail, you make an enemy of someone, and Trump is positively disposed towards Putin because he loves brutal dictators.  If Trump were taking orders from Putin, he wouldn't have launched the missiles, which goes against the direct blackmail hypothesis at the moment, but I didn't think he was being blackmailed at the moment.  My contention was that if Putin had anything, he'd leave it in his back pocket as a subtle threat, and try to remain overtly friendly to Trump.  The question is, what happens now?

If Putin does have dirt on Trump, how bad is it, and what can he get for it?  That determines when he uses it.  Of course, there is also the possibility that he just doesn't have much of anything on Trump, and the intervention in the election was not to install a direct puppet, but just a "useful idiot" (look up the phrase, if you don't know the history).  If that is the case, then the problem with a useful idiot is that second word.

However, we can treat this as a partial hypothesis test of the blackmail hypothesis test.  If things go too sour with Russia, then Trump isn't being blackmailed.  We all might glow in the dark, but hey!  Our President isn't compromised!  If everything calms down, then things are less clear.  It could be that Putin dangled blackmail threats in front of Trump, or it could be that some clear-headed advisor (Mattis, maybe) pointed out that a full-blown war in Syria has a lot of downside risks that Trump might not be willing to take.

So, maybe we'll find out what the deal is with Trump and Putin.  Hopefully with minimal casualties.

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Congressional incentives and war powers

Just a quick note today.  Funny how positions on congressional authorization for military action in Syria change when the party in the White House changes.

When Obama was President, Assad crossed the "red line" and used chemical weapons.  Plenty of hawks demanded action, but also demanded that Obama seek congressional authorization.  Congressional Republicans were caught in a bind.  They couldn't vote no because then they would be tacitly giving approval for Assad's actions, and they didn't want to vote yes because then, if anything went wrong, they'd be on the hook, just as Democrats who voted to go into Iraq were tied to that vote after things went badly there.  So, Republicans ducked, and refused to vote on anything.

Will they do things differently now?  Maybe, maybe not.  There is at least a higher probability of a congressional vote to authorize some action.  Why?  Simple.  Trump is a Republican, so no matter how congressional Republicans vote, they are stuck with the fallout, so there is less downside to voting yes.  They still might not vote, and as long as Trump stays within the 90 days total permitted by the War Powers Resolution, they don't need to do anything.  Hell, Obama violated that, and Congress didn't do anything anyway, so fuck it.  They don't have to do anything.  Never mind.

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

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Senate has gone nuclear, and it hasn't changed (this week)

Yes, McConnell pressed the button and used the nuclear option.  He declared that cloture requires 51 votes for Supreme Court nominees.  Changing the rules to reduce cloture from 60 votes to 51 votes would have taken 67 votes, and he didn't have 67, so he just got a bare majority to declare that black is white, up is down, Han shot second and the rules say whatever they want them to say.  He used the same maneuver Reid used a few years back because it was the only way to complete the process he started when he announced that he would block Obama from filling the vacancy on the court.

And the Senate is the same as it was a week ago.

Remember what I was saying months ago:  the filibuster was functionally gone for SCOTUS nominations anyway.  McConnell was quite clear that the Democrats were never going to be allowed to filibuster any Republican nominee, so whether the rule was left on the books as some illusory thing or not was irrelevant.  A tool you can't use might as well be thrown out.  The fact that it has now been thrown out just means people can't pretend that an unusable tool is available.  I have no patience for pretense.

Comity?  That was gone long ago.  These people already hated each other.  The relationship between the escalation of partisan warfare and personal animosity is tricky.  It is hard not to hate someone who is using every trick in the book (and then throwing out the rule book with the nuclear option) to do something you think is morally wrong.  It is also much easier to throw out the rules when engaged in conflict with someone you hate.  Regardless of the direction of causation, though, the Senate, once the more bipartisan chamber, was as rancorous as the House last week.  This week's use of the nuclear option changes nothing.

Isn't this just one more step in the escalating partisan conflict, though?  Yes, but McConnell took that step long ago, when he made clear in February that he intended to use the nuclear option if Democrats filibustered, which, given Merrick Garland, they kind of had to do.

Yes, the Senate went nuclear this week.  Nothing changed.

With everything going on in Syria and Russia getting pissed off, let's hope that's all the nuclear action we see.  I did have some warnings about the risks of that...

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

Friday, April 7, 2017

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

For anyone who cares, this is actually from the album, "Copperopolis."  This was what youtube had, though.

Trump at war

Maybe it's just one air strike.  What if it isn't?  These things escalate.  Others are better equipped than I am to handle the tactical side, so here's some political science.

Trump is a public opinion disaster.  Gallup hasn't had him above 50%, ever, and lately, they've had him south of 40.  Wars boost public approval of the president, right?  We even have a buzz-word, for it, right?

The "rally-round-the-flag" effect.  When there are international crises, approval of the president tends to go up.  Tends.  Why the wishiwashiness of that statement?  It is conditional.  Everything is about party identification (the one point I know my students will remember, years later).  Most people don't have well-defined belief systems, particularly about foreign affairs.  So, they'll take signals from trusted partisan elites.  That makes public opinion dependent on elite signals.

The key reference here is Richard Brody's Assessing the President.  When elites rally around the president, so do the great unwashed masses.  Seriously, people, take a fucking shower.  And use some better soap.  Some deodorant wouldn't hurt either.

Anywho, who are these elites anyway?  Members of Congress, media figures, that type of person.  If they decide that we all need to get in line behind Trump, then the unshowered masses will unthinkingly do so because they don't have well-defined opinions about what do do in Syria.

The trouble is that elites are strategically constrained.  If they think that they need to get in line to avoid ostracism, they will do so.  It's a sort of collective action problem.  Nobody wants to be the one person who won't get in line, unless they represent Berkeley (Barbara Lee opposed going into Afghanistan after 9/11, and was the only one in Congress to do so).  If this goes past an air strike, what will Democratic politicians and other elites do?  We'll see.

But seriously, bathe.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Why do Republicans want a majority in Congress?

Another healthcare "negotiation" is failing.  At this point, I'm not being sarcastic.  The GOP has organized itself as an opposition party-- opposition to Obama and Obamacare-- for so long that the question they need to answer is this:  why do they want to be the majority rather than the opposition party in the legislature?

In the Senate, when the President is a Republican, they want to confirm his plagiarist nominees, but beyond that, what's the point?  So far, the Republicans haven't gotten any real legislation passed, aren't close to doing so, and have no prospects of doing so.  As we are all tired of saying, "this isn't normal."

 Majorities used to serve a purpose in the House too.  Gary Cox and Mathew McCubbins, in Legislative Leviathan, describe the majority party as a cartel, controlling procedure such that what gets to the floor of Congress is the legislation that unites the party and provides an electoral benefit by creating a positive brand name for the majority party.  And perhaps therein lies the problem.  There is little that truly unites the party when the House Freedom Caucus won't agree to compromises with the more moderate wing of the party, such as it is, and when it came to healthcare, the concern of the moderate wing was that taking away subsidies or the Medicaid expansion, by removing financial benefits that currently exist, wouldn't actually be electorally beneficial, even if some others' premiums would go down.

That leaves the Republicans with little to do right now, though.  They'll ram through Plagiarist-Gorsuch's nomination, and pass a tax cut, but beyond that, they sort of need to figure out why they want a majority.  A cartel without a product is a lousy cartel indeed.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Neil Gorsuch and plagiarism

I don't mince words.  You're used to that by now.  Neil Gorsuch is a fucking plagiarist.  That is my professional opinion, as a professor who has encountered a lot of plagiarism, and fully prosecuted every case I have seen.

Yes, I hate Politico, but here's their write-up, which has some key passages side-by-side.  Notice two things, which get my professor-ly hackles up.  Plagiarist-Gorsuch (his new name) borrows long passages word-for-word, but he also breaks a few things up.  He changes just a few words, here and there, just to make it seem like he is doing something slightly different.  Standard scumbag, shit-sucking plagiarist trick.  Like I'm going to give you credit for that.  No fucking way, you plagiarist motherfucker!  When you change just a few words, you know exactly what you are doing, and exactly why you are doing it, and fuck you for insulting my intelligence by suggesting that I might be stupid enough to believe otherwise.

Why did he think he could get away with it?  To be blunt, a lot of plagiarism in the world doesn't get caught.  He was lazy, dishonest, and thought he could get away with it.  The passages were either historical or scientific, and he decided not to try to re-work them.  It was actually kind of understandable.  The intellectual components of the book, as far as I understand right now, were Gorsuch's own doing.  He didn't take other peoples' ideas and claim them as his own, which would have been worse.  He was trying to speed through the boring part of writing and get to the fun part.  I get it.  Some parts of writing suck, and as plagiarism in academia goes, there's worse out there.  He still did something dishonest out of laziness.  And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids.  (And being put under the microscope of a SCOTUS nomination).  Frankly, he probably forgot he did it.  As Rick Perry would say, "oops."

So, the Senate is probably about to break its rules to confirm a fucking plagiarist.  How appropriate.  (We must now add at least some possibility that Gorsuch's nomination is thrown out, but all he really needs to do is apologize).

Oh, and kids:  don't try this shit on me and expect Mitch McConnell to save you with the nuclear option.

As a side-note, what is it with Trump and plagiarists?  Melania, Monica Crowley, Gorsuch...

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Rules, norms and Nomic in the Senate

Yes, the Senate is going nuclear.  Back in November, I wrote that the filibuster was essentially dead for Supreme Court nominations, even though Reid only used it for sub-SCOTUS nominations.  Why?

Nomic.  Nomic is a ridiculous, stupid game created by a philosophy professor named Peter Suber in 1982.  What is the point of Nomic?  To change the rules of Nomic.  Yes, really.  The game is about re-writing the rules about making rules for Nomic.  Does your head hurt?  Good.  That's kind of the point.  It was a philosophical exercise in the circularity of rule-making and the question of the malleability of rules about rule-making.  It actually has some vague insight about process.  If the process about changing the process can be changed, then are rules meaningful?

Man, that's deep.

Good rule of thumb:  anytime you can imagine someone saying, "man, that's deep," it isn't.

Fuck Peter Suber.  Fuck him.  Fuck him for wasting time and brain cells like the fucking philosopher twerp he is.  I hate philosophers.  Bunch of wankers, the lot of them.  (Except Harry Frankfurt.  He rules.)

Anyway, the point is that rules are malleable, whether that hurts your Nomic-addled brain or not, and in the Senate, they have only ever really been norms, not even Nomic-style rules.  The filibuster has always existed at the sufferance of the majority because the cost of eliminating it in the long run has balanced the short run benefit of doing so, until now.

Using the nuclear option breaks the rules, as I have explained before.  It isn't even playing Nomic.  There are no rules.  Fuck Peter Suber.

The Senate will break its rules.  Mitch McConnell, having forced Harry Reid to knock over the board and break the rules in 2013, will now do the same.  The Senate is not, and never was governed by rules.

For those who want to go back and read what I said in November, here are the links to the "Future of the filibuster" series.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

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

Tuesday timing threw this a bit off, but this is a great one for Brexit paperwork going through...

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Senate battle over Gorsuch is already over

Back in February, I posted this about how Mitch McConnell had already, for all practical purposes, used the nuclear option to eliminate the filibuster.  Gorsuch will be confirmed this week, unless there is some minor, pointless delay putting off the inevitable.  Democrats have lost.  They cannot filibuster.  The filibuster is gone.

Strategic arguments about what the Democrats should do miss the point.  They have no strategic options here.  None.  Should they actually go through with the filibuster?  Arguments against doing so follow one of two lines of reasoning:

1)  Gorsuch doesn't shift the ideological balance of the court because he replaces Scalia, so Democrats should keep their powder dry for the possibility of, say, Ginsberg dying.  If Trump got to replace her, that would shift the balance.

2)  Gorsuch is at least qualified and not a Bork-level culture warrior.  Democrats should keep their powder dry in case Trump goes overboard next time.

Both lines of reasoning rely on the faulty premise that Democrats have powder to keep dry.  They presume that there is some hypothetical future nominee that McConnell would allow them to filibuster without going nuclear.

The Democrats have already lost, not just this confirmation fight, but every confirmation fight as long as the line-up remains a Republican presidency and a Republican Senate.  How do we know this?  That was the whole point of the Garland fiasco, for which McConnell had the backing of his GOP Senate colleagues.

Democrats will never be allowed to filibuster a Republican's Supreme Court nominee.  So, what is the purpose of not filibustering so that the Republicans don't use the nuclear option formally, so that Democrats have the right to filibuster, which they can't ever use?

This is probably politically incorrect these days, but fuck it.  It's still funny.

For what it's worth, I covered some of the history in a November series called "The future of the filibuster."

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Tax reform, tradeoffs and the Freedom Caucus

Getting back to tax reform and why it won't happen...

The Freedom Caucus.

Freedom from legislation.

Tax reform, as I've been saying, is all about tradeoffs.  The same can be said for nearly all policy decisions, but tax reform forces you to confront the tradeoffs directly.  In order to maintain revenue neutrality, cutting nominal rates requires eliminating deductions.  Cutting someone's tax burden requires raising someone else's.  What motivates the Freedom Caucus?  Ideologically, they aren't really all that different from Paul Ryan.  We use a -1 to +1 ideology scale to study Members of Congress, based on their voting behavior (called a NOMINATE score) constructed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, and on that scale, Paul Ryan is at .8580.  Mark Meadows, the Chair of the Freedom Caucus, is at .8330.  Their disagreement with Ryan isn't about ideology.  They don't disagree on policy.  At all.  They disagree about the appropriateness of compromise and concession to a little thing I like to call "reality."  The Freedom Caucus opposes such things at all times.

Tax reform is intrinsically compromise.  Take away the tax increases and you are left with... tax cuts!  So, what will the Freedom Caucus see when shown a tax reform proposal?  A bill with some tax increases and some tax cuts.  What will they want to do?  Get rid of the tax increases.  The bill ceases to be tax reform, and becomes a tax cut.  One can simplify the tax code at a lower nominal rate, making it still a tax reform, but if the proposal isn't revenue neutral, it isn't eligible for budget reconciliation rules, and it can be filibustered in the Senate, unless McConnell goes nuclear for it, but the point is that we know exactly how the Freedom Caucus will react to a true tax reform package.  They will insist that it be turned into something ineligible for budget reconciliation rules.

And if Paul Ryan ignores the Freedom Caucus and seeks Democratic support for the bill?

The Freedom Caucus does to Ryan what they did to Boehner.  Ryan knows that, so he won't do it.  He can't work with Democrats for fear of being removed as Speaker, and the Freedom Caucus won't let him craft a bill that will be eligible for reconciliation rules because they don't accept the principle of making tradeoffs.

Tax reform?  Yeah, sure.

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

An immunity deal for Flynn would be stupid and pointless

I'll get back to the politics of tax reform soon, but this deserves some commentary.

Hey, I've got an idea!  Let's give Michael Flynn immunity!  Then he'll spill the beans on Trump to Congress and Trump will get impeached!

No.  Anyone thinking that has been watching too many courtroom dramas.  (Whatever happened to Fred Thompson's presidential campaign?  Oh, yeah...)

Have you ever watched a guilty person testify before Congress?  They just plead the Fifth Amendment, over and over and over again.  It may look bad, but it doesn't matter.  And it doesn't matter to Flynn.  He has already resigned in disgrace, you can't convict based on a Fifth Amendment invocation-- which is the whole point-- and there really isn't anything beyond that.  So what's Flynn's game here?  Two possibilities.

1)  Flynn just wants to guarantee that he is never prosecuted under the Logan Act.  We already know that he violated the Logan Act.  Right after Obama imposed some mild penalties for Russia hacking the DNC, Flynn called the Russians to tell them not to respond because Trump would undo everything.  That was a private citizen engaged in diplomacy to undercut US foreign policy, which violated the Logan Act.  In principle, he could be prosecuted, but not if Congress gives him immunity, and he then tells Congress that he did it, on his own, with no instruction from Trump.  That way, he gets off scot-free, Trump stays in the clear, and everybody in Trumpland is happy.

2)  There is something beyond the Logan Act for which Flynn wants immunity.

Possibility 1 is the most likely.  The chances of a prosecution under the Logan Act were never high.  It is not exactly a high priority for federal prosecution, for a wide variety of reasons that others can explain better than I can, but Flynn is probably fine now.  Still, even if you think there is only a 1% chance of prosecution, why not reduce that to 0%?  Would you trust Trump to pardon you?  I wouldn't trust that sack of shit to do anything for me.  So, try to weasel an immunity deal from Congress with the intention of giving them nothing of value anyway.

What about Possibility 2, though?  Does Flynn have dirt on Trump?  Of course he does.  Would he share that dirt in exchange for immunity?  No.  Not now, anyway.  The immunity deal is a play that someone takes when his back is up against the wall, and it is that or prison.  He doesn't flip on Trump unless he is otherwise screwed, and the only thing we know about Flynn is the Logan Act violation.  And again, he was never likely to be prosecuted for that, so that isn't enough to get him to turn Henry Hill.

If Flynn were facing real prosecution for something, an immunity deal might make sense, but he's not.  He violated the Logan Act, and that wasn't likely to be prosecuted.  So, he has nothing for which he needs immunity.  If he were brought before Congress without immunity, he'd just plead the Fifth.  Most likely, he just wants to reduce the probability of a Logan Act prosecution from 1% to 0%.

Oh, and Oliver North kept his mouth shut and did his time without flipping on anyone higher, so even if Flynn did get caught for something beyond the Logan Act, he still might not flip.

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

Friday, March 31, 2017

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

Why real tax reform won't happen anyway

Yesterday, I posted a non-ideological, technocratic case for true tax reform, meaning the revenue-neutral simplification of the tax code.  Supposedly, this is next on the Republican agenda.  It won't happen.  The basic political reason is that most of the complexities in the tax code are benefits for someone rather than costs.  They are mostly deductions and credits, not penalties.  And here is an iron law of politics (and psychology) for you:  people will fight much harder to preserve a benefit they currently have than they ever would have fought to get it created in the first place.

The simplest tax code is either a flat tax, or a progressive tax with no deductions.  Wait, do I mean no deductions, even for charitable contributions?!  Yes, that's what I mean, and you begin to see my point about why tax reform is hard.  Some complexity will be preserved.  The political question becomes this:  which complexities get preserved?  Some deductions are just too politically popular to eliminate.  Consider the home mortgage deduction.  Take that away and plenty of homeowners will complain.  But, does it serve a valuable economic purpose?  That is more questionable, particularly after an economic collapse caused, at least to some extent, by too many people buying houses they couldn't afford.

Then there are the less popular but more economically important complexities, like the tax benefits for long-term investments.  Capital gains are taxed at lower rates if you hold an asset for longer than a year.  So, buy some stocks, hold them for longer than a year, sell them, and you pay a pretty low tax rate on what you make in profit.  To a lot of people, particularly on the money-hating left, this sounds horrible, but not only does it encourage investment, it encourages a healthier form of investment than the high-frequency traders who cause a lot of the real problems in the market.  This is one of those attempts to create market distortions that are beneficial, even if you need to understand some economics to see how.

The problem for debating tax reform, then, is about how to decide which complexities to keep.  That's hard, and every group getting a benefit thinks that theirs is critical.  Everybody in Congress represents different kinds of groups.  When they are unable to agree on whose benefits are kept, what happens?

Congress defaults to minor changes at best to the existing tax code, which retains its complexity.

Doing tax reform requires making tradeoffs.  You can't give everyone everything.  Keeping it revenue-neutral so that it is tax reform, and thus won't add to the deficit, and thus remains eligible for "budget reconciliation" rules in the Senate and cannot be filibustered, requires making tradeoffs.

The whole point of the House Freedom Caucus is that they don't accept the concept of making tradeoffs.  They want everything.  No compromise.  Not on anything.  Not ever.  That means they don't want revenue-neutral changes to tax policy.  They want to change the tax code in a way that lowers rates.  That would add to the deficit, make the bill ineligible for reconciliation rules in the Senate while guaranteeing Democratic opposition and a filibuster, and guaranteeing failure.

Tax reform is about making tradeoffs.  The House Freedom Caucus won't let the party make tradeoffs.  The last Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, Dave Camp, tried to propose a tax reform package on his way out of town.  They laughed at him.  This won't happen.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The case for true tax reform

Supposedly, the next real issue the GOP will take up is tax reform.  Tax reform-- real tax reform-- won't pass.  But there is a case for it.  Here it is.

First, let's define our terms.  Tax reform, separate from tax cutting, means simplifying the tax code, in a revenue-neutral way.  The tax code is littered with loopholes.  Get rid of the loopholes, and you can lower the nominal rates for everyone, keeping the same level of revenue.  Some people's rates go up, some go down, but everything gets more simple.

The tax code is insanely complicated.  That has costs.  We reward and punish people through the tax code.  Sometimes we do so intentionally to reward "good behavior," like giving people tax benefits for charitable contributions, although some of the things that get rewarded as charitable contributions are not exactly feeding homeless children.  Regardless, some of the complexity is there to incentivize the behavior we want to incentivize.  A lot of the complexity, though, is either outdated, or just there to reward one group over another, not to benefit society more broadly, but because somebody in Congress saw an advantage in putting it there (i.e., the company that benefited most was in his district).  When we incentivize charitable contributions, we are distorting the market in a "good" way.  When we give an advantage to Company A over Company B because the tax code has a giveaway that happens to benefit Company A, we are distorting the market in a "bad" way.  Simplifying the tax code can get rid of the bad distortions.

Relatedly, companies have incentives to spend money looking for ways to exploit the tax code rather than, ya' know, R&D etc.  That both draws their resources and drains revenue from the Treasury when they succeed.

In fact, they have to spend a significant chunk of their operating costs on tax compliance given the complexity of the tax code.  That's wasted money that doesn't have to go to waste under a simplified tax code.  Who pays for that?  Ultimately, consumers.

That's the quick version, but there is a lot to be said for a simplified tax code.  Of course, we haven't done tax reform since 1986.  Why not?  Tradeoffs.  We'll get to that, but it won't happen.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are Republicans really going to try again on healthcare?

Yesterday, I did a reminder post that the GOP always had an easier path on healthcare, and then, throughout the day, we got rumblings that they might try again.  How seriously should you take these rumblings?

Not very.

1)  Remember that a single bill can't happen.  If Ryan's bill, with all of the concessions that he and Trump made to the Freedom Caucus still couldn't get through the House, then there is nothing that could get both the support of the hardliners in the House and the Senate moderates.  That means nothing can pass in a single bill.  Piecemeal measures?  Sure, but a single replacement?  Nope, and since there are more than two votes against repeal in the Senate without a simultaneous replacement, this can't be done in a single bill.  This is all posturing.

2)  The GOP can't be seen to give up after just a few weeks.  That was one of the many stupid aspects of this process.  Being the party that fights the never-ending fight against Obamacare doesn't work if you have a plan that is revealed to be an utter failure in a few weeks.  Send a few measures to committees.  Have lots of hearings.  That's what they should have done in the first place.  Drag it out.  If the point is the fight, Congress is great at dragging things out interminably.

3)  The committees should have had a say in this from the beginning anyway.  That is where negotiations take place, where the hardliners could duke it out with the moderates, and where they could have figured out from the beginning that a single bill wasn't going to work.  Committees are still where they can figure out what can pass.

4)  Parties are supposed to make sure that the only stuff that gets anywhere near the floor is the stuff that unifies the majority against the minority.  How?  You have to know what your party will support.  In advance.  The committee system, the whip system, all of these can be tools of party leadership, in the right hands.  Paul Ryan has never governed before.  As a condition for accepting the speakership, Boehner had to raise the debt ceiling first so that Ryan wouldn't have any real work to do before the 2016 election.  In the past, I have recommended that everyone read Richard Fenno's Learning to Govern.  It is about the mess after the GOP took control after the 1994 election, unexpectedly.  Nobody knew what they were doing because nobody in the GOP had ever been in the majority, it having been 40 years since the GOP controlled the House.  At least Paul Ryan isn't quite as stupid as Newt Gingrich.  Low bar, but still...  I expect him to get better.

What does all of this mean for healthcare?  In all likelihood, occasional posturing.  Maybe a few small measures.  A real repeal-and-replace?  Fuck no.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Remember that the Republicans always had an easier option on Obamacare, and still do

Amid the flaming wreckage of their repeal-and-replace fantasies, it is worth remembering that there was always an easier way.  From the beginning of this mess, I pointed out that the easiest thing for Republicans to do was as follows:  piecemeal repeal of the easiest provisions to eliminate.

Begin with the employer mandate.  The employer mandate requires any employer with over 50 employers to provide health insurance.  It creates a threshold problem.  Hiring the 50th employee can dramatically raise the cost of doing business.  How big a problem is that for the economy over-all?  Not a 'yuge' one, but it does create perverse incentives.  Besides, the vast majority of employers over 50 provide insurance anyway.  Get rid of it in one small, separate bill.  Will the Freedom Caucus really oppose that?  Not likely.  It is deregulation.

Next, get rid of the medical device tax.  It's a tax cut.  The Freedom Caucus can't oppose a tax cut, nor can anyone in the Republican Party.  In fact, you'll get some Democrats on board for both of these.

After that, things get more obscure, but the point is to do a sequence of repeal votes.  My original proposition was that the best way to handle the GOP's repeal dilemma was with a series of repeal votes of ever-decreasing magnitude because trying to do an actual repeal just wouldn't work.  Repeal failed.  The small-bore measures can still happen.  What is stopping or will stop them at this point?


Unless pressure builds because they need to do something.

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

No theme today.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The difference between political and business deal-making

Donald Trump was never the master businessman that he always claims to be.  The analogy I have made on many occasions is that he is to business as Hulk Hogan is to martial arts-- great at bragging about how great he is at it, made even more perfect by his association with professional wrestling.  Trump failed to "close the deal" on healthcare because he ran into one of the biggest differences between deal-making in business and deal-making in politics.

In business, Trump could close a deal one at a time.  X for Y, one on one.  He was never the best at it, but he wasn't the worst either.  The thing about business deals is that the impact of one deal on another is minimal.  If I invest in you, I have less to invest somewhere else, but another business endeavor isn't likely to turn down my money just because I invested with you.  Spill-over effects just aren't that big.  This is part of why Trump thinks that he can handle everything with bilateral negotiations.  We have seen this in his desire to work out trade deals bilaterally, and his desire to handle Obamacare replacement negotiations person-by-person.

The problem is that politics don't work that way.  This is where we see the real value of something like "the spatial model," where we put policies and legislators along a line from left to right.  Within the Republican Party, on the left, we have Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.  Without them on board, the Senate Republicans would have had precisely 50 votes, with Pence casting the tie-breaker.  They would have had no extra votes to spare.  But, there were more Republicans nervous about how far to the right the Obamacare replacement bill had moved, including some in the House.  On the right, far, far, far to the right, there was the House Freedom Caucus.

Any change Trump tried to make that moved policy to the right, to satisfy the Freedom Caucus, made the moderates even less willing to support the replacement, and any move to the left to satisfy the moderates lost the Freedom Caucus.  Trump kept trying to make incremental changes to get the Freedom Caucus on board, but what Paul Ryan realized was that there was no way to get a majority, period.  Why?  Because any bill that would have satisfied the Freedom Caucus would have been unpalatable to the moderates (and couldn't have gotten through Senate reconciliation rules anyway), and any move to the left lost the Freedom Caucus.

Could any negotiation have solved this?  Perhaps not, but it certainly couldn't have been done one-on-one, the way Trump wants, and the way business deals work.  Politics don't work that way.