Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Political coincidences and my bedside reading

These are pure coincidences.  I don't actually choose my own books, most of the time.  My wife puts books on my night stand, and whenever I finish one book, I just grab the next.

I just started reading Jacqueline Carey's Santa Olivia.  It is a sort of post-apocalyptic thing set in a region between border walls separating the US and Mexico, in an outpost occupied by the US military, occasionally attacked by somebody who is basically a terrorist who may or may not actually exist.  He might be concocted as an imaginary threat to keep everyone contained.  (I'm not done with the book yet-- it has just been strongly suggested).  The book was published in 2009.

And then there is the book I just finished.  Asghar Farhadi, an Iranian filmmaker, was nominated for an Academy Award, but, well, can he attend the ceremony?  He has announced that he will skip, no matter what.  The last book I read was John Scalzi's Agent to the Stars.  Basic plot:  aliens arrive, and while they are nice, they look like gelatinous blobs and smell horrible.  So, instead of making a scene, they make contact with a Hollywood agent to figure out how to do first contact.  The conclusion (which sucked):  one of the aliens merges with a comatose, brain-dead actress, absorbs the memories of a Holocaust survivor, acts in a movie about the Holocaust, wins an Oscar, and reveals that she is secretly an alien at the ceremony.  It... turns out better in the book than it would in real life.  Scalzi's other books are better.  This was just an amusing coincidence.

No political science insights here.  Just coincidences.  Honestly, I just finished the Scalzi book, and just started the Carey book.

Tuesday music: If you only love American music, you just suck

I tried to do this a while back, and couldn't remember to maintain it.  Maybe it will stick this time.

The Tuareg are a Berber group that live primarily around Algeria, Niger, Mali, and... Libya.  Bombino is a Tuareg guitarist, originally from Niger, but he lived in Libya for a few years.  He also put out one of the best albums of 2016, which didn't make it into my series because of the structure of the "If you don't love __, you hate America" thing.  Well...

Monday, January 30, 2017

Some legal references on banning entry from predominantly-Muslim countries

As the fun of the entry ban continues, I thought I might point out some case law.  Not my normal thing, but I know a bit about the subject.

Trump made waves during the campaign announcing his desire to ban all Muslims from entering the country-- a promise so wild and blatantly unconstitutional that Mike Pence, back before he had to toe the Trump line, couldn't stomach it.  Yup, Mike Pence's description was "offensive and unconstitutional."

Trump changed the policy from a ban on Muslims to a ban on people from certain predominantly Muslim countries in order to try to escape the blatant unconstitutionality of his initial proposal.

Does anyone remember Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District of Pennsylvania?  This was the big one on the teaching of "intelligent design."  The school district's rules required that "intelligent design" be taught alongside evolution.  A parent objected on the grounds that "intelligent design" is nothing more than creationism dressed up in new clothes.  As such, it is religion, and public schools cannot teach religion as science.  Defenders of "intelligent design" argued that it was distinct from creationism.  They were... somewhat undercut by the fact that the text they used (Of Pandas and People) went through a series of drafts.  In old drafts, they gave a definition of "creation science" that was the same as the definition they eventually gave to "intelligent design."  Why?  Because it's the same fucking thing.  Judge Jones gave the same assessment, but, ya' know, without the Carlin-speak.  Stuffy lawyers...

See what I'm getting at here?  Trump announced his intention to ban Muslims from entering the country.  Even people like Mike Pence say no fucking way.  Trump changes the policy to a ban on people from predominantly Muslim countries.  And just over the weekend, Rudy Giuliani was going on tv, admitting that the whole thing was an attempt to get around the blatant unconstitutionality of a straight-up Muslim ban.  Am I the only one thinking of Kitzmiller v. Dover?

Of course, the ban on migrants from certain predominantly Muslim countries isn't exactly, word-for-word, the same as a Muslim ban in the same way that the Pandas text interchanged "creation science" with "intelligent design."  But, there's another nugget in the Kitzmiller ruling.  It is based heavily on a controversial Supreme Court ruling (Kitzmiller wasn't a Supreme Court case)-- Lemon v. Kurtzman.  Take a course on First Amendment law, and this one gets drilled into your fucking skull.  Conservatives hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate hate this ruling, but it has never been overturned.  Why do they hate it so much?  Figure it out from this.  It is basically a test of whether or not a policy violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  It is a three-pronged test:  1)  does the policy have a purpose that is religious, 2) does the policy have an effect that is religious, or 3) does it promote excessive government entanglement in religion?  Hit any prong, and the law violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

You can see why the "intelligent design" thing failed the "Lemon test" miserably.  You can also see why conservatives don't like Lemon v. Kurtzman.  Conservatives these days are basically motivated largely by religion.  If your goal is to enact policies motivated by religion, a Supreme Court ruling that tells you that you can't enact stuff that is basically sectarian religious law is kind of a problem for you.

Lemon v. Kurtzman is not the case that will come to most lawyers' minds these days because the entry ban is more about free exercise than the establishment clause, but the logic of the test is an interesting analog, particularly in reference to Kitzmiller v. Dover.  The change from a ban on all Muslims to a ban on entry from specific countries looks a lot to me like the textbook revision thing in Kitzmiller v. Dover.  It clearly demonstrates that the purpose is religious discrimination, creating an analogy to the first prong of the Lemon test, as in Kitzmiller v. Dover, and the predominance of Islam in the countries chosen creates an effect of bias against Islam, creating an analog to the second prong.

Anyway, I'm just a lowly Ph.D.  I'm sure a real lawyer would say I'm doing this wrong.  (Lemon v. Kurtzman was about the establishment clause, not the free exercise clause, etc.).  Fuck 'em.  My students have heard me complain about law as a discipline enough anyway.  The Constitution is an absurdly vague document, and anyone reading it is almost assured to engage in motivated reasoning.  Is "the Lemon test" from Lemon v. Kurtzman the proper way to interpret the First Amendment?  Fuck if I know.  I'm just spit-balling.

The chaos continues...

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

Friday was Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Obviously, for no other reason...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Chaos begins?

Yesterday, I posted about the contrast between the normality of Trump's actions on issues like abortion and the abnormality of his... other stuff, and how this presented a dilemma for how to discuss the Trump Presidency because, while normal policy things were happening, his abnormality would, sooner or later, have consequences.


Remember the old days when the weirdest things about his presidency were complaining about accurate reporting about crowd size at his inauguration and canceling meetings with the President of Mexico about that nonsense about making Mexico pay for a wall?  Good times, good times...

Long term, what will be the consequences of executive orders blocking entry, and such?  At this point, it is worth linking such actions with the canceled meeting with Enrique Pena Nieto.  Trump believes that he can essentially do whatever he wants.  Why?  Because he has.  And now he is President.  People told him that he needed to behave differently.  He didn't listen, and now he is President.

A plurality of Republican primary voters liked his schtick, and after two Democratic victories, the economy wasn't growing quite fast enough for a third.  Also, James Comey.  It does not logically follow that other countries' leaders will let Trump get away with grabbing them by their pussies.

What will the rest of the world do now?  Not much.  There are legal battles here over the executive order, as you are no doubt reading elsewhere.  But, Trump's behavior generally is not going over well throughout most of the world.  We have more economic power than any other one country.  We do not have more economic power than the rest of the world combined.  Trump is talking about starting trade wars and acting in ways that could, if carried to their logical extremes, lead to sanctions being imposed on the US.  Will that happen?  I have no clue.  I have no idea what Trump will do when pushed, and no idea how the rest of the world will respond.  Trump simply assumes he can get away with anything.

Because so far, he has.  Nobody with power has ever really stood up to him before.  Sort of makes you wonder what would happen if someone did...

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

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Two ways to think about Trump's first week as President

I've spent the last week writing about congressional coalitions and prospects for an Obamacare repeal-and-replace.  As such, I haven't faced the dilemma of how to write about Trump.  Of course, I wrote a lot about Trump during the election because I study elections, and I write about Obamacare now because I study Congress.  This is just what I do.  There is more to it, though.

Figuring out how to cover Trump is, like River Tam's food, problematic.  At one level, he does normal things, like sign executive orders on abortion.  When the presidency flips from D to R, the president signs an executive order putting in place the abortion gag rule, and when it flips back, the president rescinds it.  The pipeline executive orders were likewise normal and expected.  Move along, folks, nothing to see here.  Just a normal president acting normally.

Then, we have a guy obsessed with lying about the size of his... inauguration crowd.  To the point that he is demanding more photos from the park service.  Because, hey everyone!  Look at how yuge my... crowd is!

News broadcasts have limited time.  Print newspapers have limited space.  While there is no functional limit on what can be posted on-line, there is a functional limit on what can be posted in heavily frequented web pages and their most-clicked locations.  Media outlets make choices about what to cover.  Do they cover the normal aspects of the Trump Presidency, the very-not-normal elements, or some specific mix?  How do they decide?

There is no clear answer about the proper mix.  I've been writing mostly about Obamacare recently because, as a Congress junkie, I find it fascinating and I think I have something to say on the basis of stuff I have read and written in the past.  And, since I just write these things in the morning as I have my coffee, who cares, right?  I'm nobody.  (Not even a number...  Get it?)  The press, though?  They've got a problem on their hands.  A yuge one.  To ignore the normal and pretend that all that happens is Trump going on his childish, little tirades is to ignore the actual, serious policy-making, and that stuff matters.  To focus entirely on the normality and ignore the extreme lying, lashing out and other childish stuff is to miss the very important warning signs that Trump's basic unfitness for office is going to lead to real policy problems very soon.

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

Friday, January 27, 2017

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

Hank Garland made his name as a country session guitarist, but he could play straight jazz too.  And, well, I do try to stay on topic with these...

And now Rand Paul has an Obamacare replacement proposal...

Just yesterday, I posted about how, if the Republicans were approaching things in a normal strategic manner, Susan Collins would run the show on repealing and replacing Obamacare.  She is essentially the pivotal Senator.  Get Collins on board, and Republicans can pass their legislation.  Lose Collins and two more, and that's it.  That's all she wrote.  In yesterday's post, I mentioned that the reason things are still messy is that the right wing of the party might not go along with Collins-Cassidy, even though it moves policy to the right and failure to pass it might leave Obamacare in place.

And Rand Paul is pretty much doing what I said.  He has a proposal that basically gets rid of all subsidies from Obamacare that individuals use to buy health insurance when they don't get it through employers.  Why?  He's very conservative.  He hates redistribution.  Collins-Cassidy keeps too much redistribution for his taste.

Rand Paul is important for two reasons here.  First, he represents the extreme wing of the party.  He hates compromise.  Second, he is right there with Collins in one respect-- he won't vote for a repeal unless Congress passes a replacement at the same time.  In other words, if Collins and Paul can't agree on a replacement, neither will vote for a repeal.

And their replacements look nothing alike.  And Paul really doesn't like Collins-Cassidy.  If one or both of them doesn't cave, Obamacare stays in place.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why Collins might not have that much leverage on Obamacare

For the last couple of days, I've been writing about Susan Collins and her attempt to craft the Republicans' Obamacare replacement.  In a normal circumstance, she'd run the show.

In political science, she is basically what we'd call "the pivotal voter."  Array everyone along a line, based on ideology, and whoever is at the relevant pivot point to get over the relevant hurdle (majority threshold, filibuster threshold, whatever) has a lot of power.  Collins may not be the exact pivotal voter in the Senate, but she is close to it.  And, she has basically taken leadership of a pivotal faction.  If she says, "screw you guys, I'm going home," Obamacare stays in place.  So, she should set the terms.  She should be able to tell everybody in the Senate and the House to accept Collins-Cassidy and call it a done deal.  She should be in the same situation as Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu in 2010 when the ACA passed.*

Why isn't she, necessarily?

That's why.  There is a large, and dominant faction of hardliners in the Republican Party, willing to walk away from nearly complete victory if it isn't 100% victory.  John Boehner was a pretty damned effective Speaker of the House, in my opinion.  I'm not shy in my praise for him.  But, he was run out of town by the people in his own caucus whom he called "knuckleheads."  Why?  Short version: he couldn't force Obama to repeal Obamacare by stomping his feet and holding his breath until his face turned blue.  For that sin, a truly brilliant Speaker (yes, I liked Boehner) was given the bum's rush.

And there are a lot of those knuckleheads in the House of Representatives today.  And if they refuse to accept Collins-Cassidy, Obamacare stays in place.

Collins' bargaining power rests on the premise that everyone in the Republican Party understands that they need to accept her position.  Among the Democrats in 2010, that was true with respect to Nelson and Landrieu.  Even Bernie Sanders was smarter than the knuckleheads, and that dude is a fucking moron.  (Wow, it's been a long time since I've picked on him...)

So, yes, Collins could demand that the party accept Collins-Cassidy or lose her vote to repeal Obamacare.  She hasn't gone that far yet, but she could.  If she did, would it work?  I don't know.  I wouldn't bet on it.  Why not?  Well...

In a normal party, Collins would be the belle of the ball.  But in a normal party, John Boehner would still be Speaker, Donald Trump wouldn't have gotten that nomination, and they would have accepted Obama's offer of far bigger spending cuts, including switching to chained-CPI for Social Security in exchange for small tax increases back in 2011.

What will happen with Obamacare and Collins-Cassidy?  I have no idea.

*Of course, Nelson and Landrieu did eventually get screwed, but that's another story...

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Collins, Snowe and Obamacare alternatives

Following up on yesterday's post, how is it that Collins can have a credible threat to vote against an Obamacare repeal if she voted against Obamacare's passage, as did her voting twin, Olympia Snowe, back in 2010, even if there was that Senate Finance Committee vote?

The answer is another question:  Compared to what?

Whenever there is a vote, we pit the position of the current status quo against the position of the bill, as some alternative.  (Sometimes the bill is pitted against something other than the status quo, which we call a reversion point, like a government shutdown if spending bills aren't passed in time, but that's not what we are discussing here).  In 2010, that was the pre-ACA healthcare system against the post-ACA system.  At the time, Snowe was sufficiently ambivalent about the choice that she voted to report the bill out of committee, but eventually voted against the bill on the floor.  She preferred the pre-ACA system to the post-ACA system, by at least some small amount.

The pre-ACA system is now gone, unless the alternative the GOP chooses to introduce is a full repeal with no replace, through the nuclear option.  If Collins were consistent, she would vote for that!  Then again, that isn't the GOP's likely course of action, and that's part of why Collins has a credible threat to vote against the GOP's plans if they block Collins-Cassidy.

Obamacare is now the status quo.  If that was at least marginally acceptable to Snowe, it is at least marginally acceptable to Collins since Snowe and Collins are basically part of the same hive mind.  If the status quo is at least marginally acceptable to Collins, then she has no reason to let McConnell bully her into accepting anything dramatically different from Collins-Cassidy.  Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee and the rest of the hardliners are mightily pissed off at the status quo, but Collins?  Eh.  She could be happier, but compared to letting Ted Cruz set policy?  Collins really might prefer the current status quo.

Think of it on a line, from -1 to +1.  Suppose the pre-ACA system was .2.  Collins is 0.  Suppose the ACA is -.25.  Snowe initially couldn't tell whether the bill was closer to the Snowe/Collins ideal point or not because it was such a small difference, so she voted to report it out of committee, but after close consideration, they figured out that it was further from their ideal points, and voted no.

Now, here comes Ted Cruz, who wants things over around .85.  If Collins and Cassidy get together and write a bill at .1, saying to everyone that it is .1 or Obamacare stays, can they do that?  Well, if the alternative is to let Ted Cruz write something that moves things over to .85, then Collins really would prefer to keep Obamacare in place because -.25 is a hell of a lot closer to her ideal point than .85.

Of course, if the "replace" is to the left of the pre-ACA system, that changes things...

The key question is always this:  compared to what?

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Susan Collins and her Obamacare alternative

Susan Collins, along with Senator Bill Cassidy from Louisiana, is introducing an Obamacare alternative.  This is important.  Pay attention.  We still have no clue what Trump's executive order means, and neither does Trump, but Collins really matters.

Let's recap.  Republicans have 52 seats.  In order to pass any kind of repeal (full repeal with the nuclear option, or partial repeal with budget reconciliation), they can only lose 2 votes, leaving Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote.  More than two Senators, including Collins, have said they won't vote for any kind of repeal if there isn't a replacement at the same time.

I expect to write a lot about Collins.  She is in the same basic position as Senators Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and sort of Joe Lieberman in 2009 and 2010 during the original passage.  Why do I say "sort of" for Lieberman?  Because while Nelson and Landrieu were actual moderates from actual Republican states (Nebraska and Louisiana respectively), it was never clear that Lieberman had any actual policy goals (he flip-flopped on reducing the age of eligibility for Medicare to 55, possibly because he found out Anthony Weiner liked the idea).  Nelson and Landrieu had serious reservations about expanding the welfare state on policy grounds, and worried about their own reelection prospects.  They were the strategic actors.

There will be a lot to say about Nelson, Landrieu, and their relationship to Collins.  But there is somebody else relevant to our story here too.  Senator Collins wants the entire Republican Party to cater to her.  That works if and only if they decide that it is the Collins-Cassidy bill versus Obamacare.  Game this out.  Collins says to the party that if the replacement is anything too far from her bill, she, Cassidy, Murkowski and whoever else she can get will vote against the replace, and hence against the repeal.  Everybody is stuck with Obamacare.  Otherwise, everybody agrees to Collins-Cassidy.  They do a partial repeal of Obamacare through budget reconciliation, then pass Collins-Cassidy through reconciliation.  The hardliners don't get everything they want, but policy does move to the right.

This only works if Collins can credibly say that she would accept the Obamacare status quo rather than whatever the hardliners will cook up.

And the one Republican in the Senate who can really make that threat credible is Susan Collins, thanks to her retired voting twin, Olympia Snowe.

During the debate over Obamacare in 2009 and 2010, one Republican in the Senate voted for one version of the bill at one stage.  Olympia Snowe.  The passage of legislation is generally a tangled mess, and with Obamacare, it was even more tangled than usual.  Multiple committees considered multiple versions.  The version that eventually became law was basically the version that passed through the Senate Finance Committee, and was reported out of committee with one vote from a Republican on that committee.

Her name was Olympia Snowe.  She eventually voted no on final passage, but there was that one "yes" vote...

The relationship between Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins was a bizarre one until Snowe retired.  The two Senators from Maine nearly always voted together, and on our NOMINATE scale, measuring ideology on a -1 to +1 scale, you could basically calibrate it to zero with their voting habits.  Now, there's the not-old-but-aging line from Stephen Colbert that a moderate is just someone who doesn't have the balls to be an extremist, and that's got some politics here, but the point here is that if Snowe could conceive of voting yes on Obamacare, then Collins can credibly threaten to accept the current status quo if replacements are too far to the right of her, as most of her Senate colleagues are.

Now, Snowe is gone, replaced by Angus King, who is a definite no vote anyway.  Collins is the one to watch.

This is not a sure thing, folks.  Collins has a pretty good threat here, which I suppose means I can post this...

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Alternative facts" and what we have learned

What is there to say about "alternative facts?"  Believe it or not, we actually learned something new from the Spicer/Conway/"alternative facts" spectacle.  If you are bothering to read this, I'm just going to assume I don't have to recap it for you.  So let's get into the political science.

Your reference for the day is Fred Greenstein's The Hidden-Hand Presidency.  The book is about Eisenhower, who was thought by many to be a relatively ineffectual president.  Among political scientists, that was heavily influenced by the analysis of Richard Neustadt, who idolized FDR, and Eisenhower did things differently.  Greenstein argued that Eisenhower was actually pretty savvy.  I'll be talking about Eisenhower a lot, in all likelihood, so I'd recommend reading the book (it's good anyway), but today, I'll focus on a couple of key elements of what Greenstein called "hidden-hand leadership."

Eisenhower tried to stay above the political fray, not engaging in personality conflicts, and delegating tasks.

Stop laughing.

OK, so Trump is all about personality conflicts.  My main topic for the day, though, is delegation.  The best model for a successful Trump Presidency has always been built on delegation since he doesn't know anything about politics or public policy.  In other words, he can be successful if he just lets other people do the job for him like the spoiled child he is while he just goes off on twitter rants.

That's what the Pence selection was all about.  He needed a legislator and a governor to be the real president.  The question was about whether or not he would let Pence be the real president.

Conway and Spicer have no real responsibilities.  They are just Trump's flunkies.  If he really is just telling his flunkies to go around doing this kind of nonsense and letting the grown-ups handle the grown-up responsibilities, then everything might be OK.  However, the actions of Conway and Spicer suggest that there might not be as much delegation as the Pence-as-acting-President model, or certainly the Eisenhower model would require.

This is a stupid and petty incident.  However, Spicer did not want to go into that press briefing and tell stupid lies about the crowd size at the inauguration, and Conway did not want to try to defend those stupid lies.  They were forced into that situation by Trump.

Will Trump delegate?  These are not hopeful signs.

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

I know the image is Charley Patton, but it's Henry Sims singing and playing violin.  Charley Patton is only accompanying on guitar.  Yes, a violin in blues.  Played by a black man in 1929.  Oh, did you think that kind of thing didn't happen?

Next thing you know, people will forget that the banjo is of African origin...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The anti-Trump protests and the tea party

I could not help but think of the tea party yesterday, amid the stories of the anti-Trump protests.  My first reaction was this:  well, that was fast!  My second reaction was that it would be about as consequential.

The tea party never really mattered that much.

You have been led to believe that the tea party drove the Republicans to the right.  Not so fast there, buddy.

In studies of Congress, we measure ideology primarily with scores called "NOMINATE," based on the work of Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal.  You can get the scores at Voteview here.  Scores range from -1 at the liberal end to +1 at the conservative end.  If you dig around their page, you will also find wonderful graphs like this one.

Basically, what this graph shows is that House Republicans have been getting more conservative steadily since the 1970s.  The tea party came onto the scene in 2009.  So, you see, the tea party is such a powerful force that its impact rippled back in time and caused the Republican Party to start getting more conservative in the 1970s!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Um, yeah, time and causation don't work that way.  Short version:  moderate-to-conservative Southern Democrats were replaced by very conservative Southern Republicans while moderate-to-liberal Northeastern Republicans were replaced by liberal Democrats.  Then, the conservative Southerners kept getting more conservative for reasons difficult to explain.  Grover Norquist, talk radio, Fox News, lizard people, chemtrails, etc.  Obviously, some of those are jokes.  For example, there is no such person as Grover Norquist.  (Let's see if I can start a new conspiracy theory...)

The tea party was the Republicans' reaction to a president they really, really didn't like.  It was a mobilization effort.  And, in 2009 and 2010, it accomplished exactly jack fucking shit.  What was their primary goal, legislatively?  To block Obamacare.  How'd that work out for them?  (For the record, I'm still not convinced one way or another on the likelihood of its repeal).

Then there's the little matter of the 2010 election, and that is where the mobilization efforts of the tea party may have actually mattered.  Republicans were really pissed off in 2010.  Yup, we're talkin' 'bout piss!  The jokes write themselves!  Anyway, the 2010 election was an anti-Democratic wave election of historic scale.  Whether or not the Republicans' gains would have been as big without tea party mobilization is an impossible-to-test counterfactual, but it is at least worth considering.  Remember, though, that midterm elections strongly tend against the party of the presidency.  No, they don't intrinsically go Republican, they go against the party of the president.  That has meant going Republican in 2010 and 2014 because of a president with a "D" after his name.  Pundits have the memories of goldfish.  Anyway, combine the fact that the president was a Democrat in 2010 with the fact that the Democrats had two previous cycles of gains in congressional elections and the fact that the House map is strongly biased for Republicans, and we should have expected a Republican House after the 2010 election anyway.  So, really, was it the tea party that gave Congress to the Republicans in 2010, or just basic politics?  Those mobilization efforts couldn't hurt, but I wouldn't call them determinative.

Which brings us to yesterday's protests.  That... wasn't normal.  Nothing about the Trump Presidency is normal.  Will the protests change the minds of any Republican legislators?  No.  Will they change Trump's mind about anything?  No.  See:  2009-10.  Will it move the Democratic Party to the left?  No.  The tea party was never as big a force in moving the Republicans to the right as commentators thought.

If, however, yesterday is truly an indicator of how mobilized the left will remain through 2018, my advice to Republicans is as follows:  rush through as much as you can.  That clock is ticking.

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

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Stop arguing about the definition of "fascism"

This one is really starting to bug me, and it is popping up all over the place.  You may have noticed that I am... not a fan of Donald Trump.  I regularly compare him to Andy Kaufman's "Tony Clifton" character, the Mel Brooks version of King Louis XVI and President Camacho from Idiocracy.  I admit I'm not alone in that last one, but at least some of my references have to be vaguely modern.

A few other patterns might jump out around here.  I often put the term, "democracy," in sarcastic quote marks, followed by the phrase, "whatever that means."  I do that with a lot of contested terms because I don't like arguing about definitions.  My Ph.D. is in political science, but my background is in math.  In math, we don't really care what you call a variable.  Call it x, or call it y.  It doesn't really matter.  There are standard notations, but as long as you tell me what your variables are up-front, I don't really care what notation you use.  I might get annoyed if you reverse everything in an attempt to confuse me, but generally, those of us who come from a math background have a pretty simple rule.  Define your terms and move the fuck on.

So stop arguing about the definition of "fascism."  Arguments about definitions are pointless and stupid.  Is Donald Trump a fascist?  That depends on how you define "fascist."  If you define "fascist" as "incompetent blowhard," then, yes, he is a fascist, but that definition bears no resemblance to the historical use of the term.  Note, too, that Hitler and Mussolini were quite politically different.  We think of fascism as more associated with Hitler even though the term's origins are more closely tied to Mussolini.  Which was the "true" fascist?

Thank you, Admiral Patrick.  The reason it is a stupid question is that the label serves no purpose.  Mussolini was horrible.  Hitler was... Hitler.  Does it matter who gets what label?

So now we have people asking about whether or not the new president is a fascist.  Is he?

Thank you again, Admiral Patrick!  I won't bother to recap the debate, which you can read elsewhere.  The better questions are these:

1)  What is the likelihood of Trump attempting to limit civil rights and/or civil liberties?
2)  What is the likelihood of Trump using the military in either unprovoked or excessive ways?
3)  What is the likelihood of Trump exceeding his constitutional authority in some way?

I could go beyond these questions, but I attempted to write them broadly enough to cover any action that someone might consider "fascist."  Whatever that means.  (See what I did there?)

Is there still room to argue about definitions here?  Sure, but less so, and that's the point.  Arguing about definitions, though, is pointless.  These questions are the more important ones for those concerned with the "fascism" issue.

I'm not especially concerned with these questions.  You may notice that I keep referencing Jimmy Carter on this blog.  He was the outsider, selected by primaries against the wishes of party insiders, who had poor relations with the leaders of his congressional majority.  Um, sound familiar?

Trump doesn't understand politics.  He understands entertainment.  He can't go around firing people anymore.  He is up against a system designed to block action-- a system that he doesn't understand.  At all.

You want something to worry about?  Worry about this.  He is an idiot child with no impulse control, driven by vengeance.  And he now has control of the most dangerous weapons arsenal in history.  Including nuclear weapons.  He doesn't understand that nuclear weapons are deterrents rather than weapons of attack, and doesn't even know what the nuclear triad is.  And that part of the system is not designed to block his actions.

But that has nothing to do with "fascism."  Whatever that means.

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

Friday, January 20, 2017

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

Trump's low approval ratings and their consequences

Trump will be inaugurated today.  He will enter office with historically low approval ratings.  The latest from CNN/ORC put him at 40% approve/52% disapprove.

Now, remember that the polls were off for the election, so let's factor that in.  Nationwide, Trump polled about 3 points higher than the estimates, so let's add in about 3 points to his approval rating.  Wow!  A whole 43% approve of him once we factor in the anti-Trump bias of polling!

Yes, this is historically weird.  How weird?  Well, you can check out Gallup's Presidential Approval Center to compare this to past presidents going back to Truman.  There's no mystery here.  After an election, there is normally some validation.  Rather than that, we have had the intelligence agencies confirm that Russia was meddling to try to get Trump elected, and Trump, rather than trying to act as a unifying figure, has continued to act like Trump, getting into twitter feuds etc.

Now, so what?  Notice that Obama is pretty popular these days and not getting much done?  Why not?  His party doesn't control anything else.  Trump's party will control both chambers of Congress.  The question is, what will happen with respect to the policies about which he disagrees with his party?  Like trade?  That's where the approval ratings stuff gets tricky, and the political science literature disagrees.  So, here are some references, for the readers among you.

Basically, high approval ratings are nice if you can get them.  The question is, how nice?

Richard Neustadt, in Presidential Power, argues that public approval is a good resource, but not really the primary one.  "Presidential power is the power to persuade."  Public approval is one resource to do so, but not necessarily the best one.  Really, it is all about bargaining and reputation.  Of course, his model of presidential behavior was FDR, meaning pre-television, which brings us to...

Samuel Kernell's Going Public.  Kernell argues that presidents can get what they want by swaying the public, thereby forcing the hands of those wankers in Congress.  That only works if presidents are popular.  Trump won't be able to make that work with low approval ratings.  Of course, not everyone buys Kernell, which brings us to...

George Edwards' On Deaf Ears.  You know that annoying cliche, "wake up, sheeple!"?  It suggests that people are easily lead.  They aren't.  There are plenty of stupid animals that are hard to lead.  Do any of you have cats?  See my point?  Anyway, if it is futile to attempt to influence public opinion, then a president's popularity is of lesser value.

Lesser, but not zero value.

2018.  Here's what we know.  There are two modern midterm elections in which the president's party didn't get their asses handed to them.  1998 and 2002.  In 1998, the Republicans were dealing with, um, splashback from the impeachment.  Clinton's popularity had gone up, so the Democrats gained seats.  In 2002, Bush 43's popularity was still sky-high from his post-9/11 boost, so the Republicans gained seats.

See how this works?  The president's party loses seats in a midterm.  Unless something weird happens that makes the president unusually popular.  And Trump is unusually unpopular.  Even after we factor in the potential polling bias.  If that doesn't change, then 2018 becomes a big year for Democrats.

What does this mean?  It means for Republicans the same thing that 2009 meant for Democrats.  They have two years, and they better make the most of them.  As for Trump's heterodox positions on trade etc.?  I wouldn't put much in his ability to convince congressional Republicans, much less Democrats, to go along with them.  He can issue some executive orders, if he can stop tweeting for three seconds, but legislatively, no.  He just won't have the tools.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  When it comes to his heterodox positions, his relationship with Congress is much like that of... Jimmy Carter.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Appointments, commutations and presidential power

I don't really have anything to say about the propriety of the Manning commutation.  I'm a political scientist, not a lawyer, Jim!  It does, however, give us an interesting contrast to the hearings on Trump's cabinet picks.

Pardons and commutations are among the few truly unchecked presidential powers.  Cabinet picks, however, must be confirmed by the Senate.  In times of either divided government, or a unified government in which the president's party is willing to oppose the president, that means the president needs to cater to the preferences of the Senate.  That isn't the case now.  Senate Republicans won't block any of Trump's nominees.  Why not?

First, Trump.  This is the same party that was terrified of and hated Trump throughout the 2016 primary campaign.  But nobody in the party stood up to him throughout the campaign.  They certainly won't do so now.  Are they really so afraid of a tweet?  It seems that way.  It is difficult to understand why a party that always clearly hated the guy has never been able to rally to stop him.  Just look at poor Mitt...

They certainly won't oppose him now, on cabinet picks.  Legislation will be another matter, and I'll be writing about that...

The other issue is general party unity, and as disorganized as the Republicans have looked recently, they are relatively unified on a lot of stuff.  Except Trump, and ironically, his picks are relatively normal Republicans, if sometimes inexperienced.

What is interesting, though, is that his picks don't always agree with him, even sometimes on Russia.  This is where things can get messy.  On one hand, these are the people charged with carrying out his policy positions.  If they don't agree with his policy positions, that's a recipe for trouble.  Then again, remember that Trump doesn't really have conventional policy positions.  He isn't doing this for any reason other than to be feted.

What happens, then, when Trump takes a tiny hands-off approach to policy, leaving things to cabinet secretaries who don't agree with him?  Well, he may have sacrificed a lot of his real power, so I guess we'll find out.

Social science buzzword!  "Principal-agent problem."  It is when the decision-maker (the "principal") has trouble getting the person charged with implementing the decision (the "agent") to carry it out.

Did you know it is hard to fire a cabinet secretary?  Go read about Nixon.  I bet Trump never bothered...

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Trump, John Lewis and "legitimacy"

Yes, Donald Trump is soon to be inaugurated.  Rep. John Lewis, one of the last remaining leaders of the civil rights movement, says he isn't legitimate, and won't attend the inauguration.  I've written about this before, and this seems as good a time as any to revisit the topic.  Will Trump be a "legitimate" President?

I'll apply the same standard I always do.  "Legitimacy" is in the eye of the beholder.

James Buchanan & Gordon Tullock, in The Calculus of Consent, argue that any decision rule other than unanimity is basically bullshit because it imposes somebody's will on somebody else.  As I have written many times before (here, for example), there is no such thing as "the popular vote," but Trump certainly didn't have unanimous support.  "Democracy," whatever that is, isn't just about self-determination.  It is about imposition.  A lot of people are being imposed on here.  More than in most cases.

Regardless, Lewis doesn't perceive him as "legitimate."

However, Trump won, by the rules of the game.  Most people "accept" that he will be President, as evidenced by the lack of rioting in the streets.

Would he have won without Russia's interference?  Probably.  There isn't a shred of evidence that the DNC hacks affected anything, since the info dump happened right before the Democratic convention, after which Clinton's polling numbers went up.  However, there is a ton of evidence that Comey affected the election.

There is irony, then, to the fact that Lewis's complaint is about Russia, not Comey.  MLK was targeted by the FBI, and accused of, um, communist sympathies.

Regardless, does that make Trump illegitimate?

Wrong question.  The right question is, to whom does that make Trump illegitimate?

Well, that's more of what we call "an empirical question," isn't it?  I can't wait for the survey data on that one.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A welcome-back-to-school post on free speech in modern politics

Classes start up again here today, although I have until tomorrow to make sure my syllabi are in order.  I'm sure I won't catch all the typos.  I never do.

As a welcome-back post, let's talk a bit about free speech.  No, it's not really under threat.  Calm the fuck down.  But, it is worth discussing given current events.  I'm just going to make a few observations, some of which are going to be kind of unmutual.  Yes, I am an often-Trump-bashing professor.  That doesn't mean this blog is a safe space for knee-jerk, liberal nonsense.  I've got two incidents in mind.  The canceling of a Milo YiaIdon'tgiveafuckabouthislastname's speech at UC Davis, and a second incident about the removal of a painting about police violence in Ferguson at the Capitol Building.

Let's start with Milo YiahecangofuckhimselfcuzIain'tspellinthat.  In 1978, the American Civil Liberties Union, once considered the leftiest of the left, defended the right of a neonazi group to march in Skokie, Illinois on First Amendment grounds.

What does this have to do with counter-protests?  If the goal of the counter-protest is to shut down a speech, then the protesters are not committed to the concept of free speech.  No, they aren't governmental entities, which means they aren't violating Milo's rights, but that isn't the point.  The point is whether or not they accept the principle of free speech.  If the goal is to shout him down, then no.

Now, what the fuck was Davis doing inviting a fuckwit like Milo YiaI'moutofshittowritehere?  I don't know.  Institutions of higher learning should bring educators to campus.  Milo is an object to study, not an educator.  Institutions should bring scholars who study demagogic blowhards to campus to give talks, not the demagogic blowhards themselves.  Except, perhaps, for MRIs.  That could be fascinating.  Don't you want to see that imaging?

Regardless, the difference between 1978 and 2017 is noteworthy.

Next, Ferguson.  Now, this one's gonna get your hackles up if you don't pay attention to the news closely.  True or false:  Michael Brown was shot while trying to surrender to Darren Wilson?

Here is a link to the Department of Justice report investigating the shooting.  If you are a standard-issue lefty, here is what you know:  the DoJ found lots of racist incidents at the Ferguson Police Department.  Yup.  They did.  Here's what you never heard.  The DoJ investigated the shooting, and found that the forensic evidence did not support the story that Brown was trying to surrender, and that the "eye witnesses" who claimed to see that happen were, shall we say, not reliable.  This was, by the way, Obama's DoJ.

The problem for the left was that they had dug in so thoroughly on the "hands up-don't shoot" story before the investigation had even taken place that they couldn't back away from it, so that part of the DoJ report never even permeated most of the liberal culture.

Now, is it any wonder that Republicans in Congress got pissed off about that painting?  Of course, it doesn't have the names "Brown" or "Wilson" on it, and I'm not an art critic.  Music critic, yes, but I don't get paintings.  Still, this is an important reminder about speech.  Know what the fuck you are talking about.

This gets really hard about issues like Ferguson and race generally because it is so easy to jump to conclusions.  There have been a lot of instances of police using unjustified force.  Kids are dead.  I teach at Case Western Reserve University.  In Cleveland.  Michael Brown, though?  That's not what Obama's Department of Justice said.

Free speech.  Yup.  It's probably a good idea to know what you are talking about, though.  Welcome back to school with this unmutual blog post!

PS: What's the difference between an homage and a blatant rip-off?  Maybe we should check with Monica Crowley.  Or Melania Trump.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Congressional leadership, coalition-building, and Obamacare replacements

Still continuing on the theme, if Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are going to pass any kind of Obamacare replacement-- a necessary condition for repeal, as stated by enough Senators to block repeal-- they need to manage the competing preferences of their caucuses.  Here's where you need to know some basics about Congress.

Procedurally, the Speaker of the House is much stronger than the Senate Majority Leader.  He just has a lot more rules that he can exploit.  The problem that Paul Ryan has is that his caucus is filled with hard-liners-- the same ones who booted John Boehner because he couldn't get Obama to turn into a Republican.  McConnell may not be able to pass very much, for the reasons I've been covering.  We'll see.  The problem for Paul Ryan is that his job will be to sell to his caucus whatever McConnell got out of his caucus.  If the House Freedom Caucus (the tea party people who booted Boehner) think that they can get more, and demand more, then Ryan has trouble on his hands.  And he won't even be able to blame a Democrat.

Sometimes the leader is only nominally in charge.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Policy, elections, coalition-building and Obamacare replacements

Continuing with the theme of the last couple of posts, there are more than just policy tradeoffs.  Pass a bill that people don't like, and you can lose your seat in Congress.

In 2010, Democrats lost seats in Congress.  And Obamacare was partially to blame.  Want the serious, academic cite?  You can get an ungated copy of the peer-reviewed paper here by Brendan Nyhan, Eric McGhee, John Sides, Seth Masket and Steven Greene.  Yup, 2010 was a Democratic bloodbath, for many reasons, but Obamacare contributed.  And they knew it would when they voted for it.  They decided it was worth it.  They had been trying to pass healthcare reform for decades.  They might not get another chance, so they took it, knowing the costs.  And they paid the costs.

Why?  Short answer: any time you disrupt a system, somebody wins and somebody loses.  The benefits were scheduled to kick in after a delay, true, but as a general rule, the losers get more pissed.  Some people paid higher taxes, higher premiums, etc.  Combine that with philosophical opposition to more redistribution, and you had a recipe for the predictable bloodbath that the Democrats suffered in 2010.

So it goes.

And now, the Republicans have to decide whether or not to disrupt the healthcare system.  Whatever they do, with any replacement, someone will win, and someone will lose.  Even if the replacement is no replacement because they revert to the pre-Obamacare system, there are winners and losers.  The people who lose will be more mobilized because that will always be the case.  And Republicans will pay the electoral price in 2018.

And that is another tradeoff!  Building a replacement coalition, for any replacement, requires finding a coalition willing to pay those prices.  Are congressional Republicans willing to pay the electoral price of repealing Obamacare?

How high will the price be?  We don't know.  It depends on a lot of factors, including but not limited to what they do, but they will pay a price, strange as it may seem given that Democrats paid a price to pass Obamacare in the first place.

So, here's the question:  do congressional Republicans care enough to pay the price?  I know what you're thinking.  GERRYMANDERING!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Bullshit.  First, even in the House, the presidential candidates are separated by less than 10 points in the two-party vote in around 25% of the districts, more or less, long-term-average.  I haven't gotten the 2016 numbers yet, but gerrymandering is an overstated boogeyman obsessed-over by know-nothing goo-goos.  Second, remember the Senate!  Third, remember 2010!

So, are Republicans willing to pay the price?  Many are.  A lot are hard-core anti-redistributionists.  They may not get another shot, so like the Democrats in 2010, they'd take it.  Then, there are the ones who don't hate Obamacare as much as they pretend.  Remember the origins of Obamacare.  It was cooked up by the Heritage Foundation as the Republican response to HillaryCare in the '90s, and then implemented in Massachusetts by Mitt Somethingorother.  It isn't a stretch to think that a moderate, Northeastern Republican like Susan Collins, in her heart-of-hearts, kind of thinks it's OK and doesn't really want to throw away her career to destroy it.  Then, there are the cowards who just care about being reelected.  The ones who don't want to be reverse-2010'ed.

Now, I know what you're thinking!  PRIMARIES!!!  That's the catch.  Or, potential catch.  Republican primaries have always been an overstated threat.  Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina got primaried for being insufficiently conservative in 2010, as did Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana in 2012.  Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia was a more complicated story in 2014, having completely ignored his district, and having a campaign against him focused entirely on immigration, but that one shocked everyone.  Still, let's throw it in.  That's really about it for straight-forward stories of getting primaried for not being conservative enough.  Everyone else has a major catch.  No, Bob Bennett from Utah doesn't count.  He didn't get primaried.  His party yanked his name from the primary ballot in a procedure that can only happen in Utah.  There are others who have lost primaries, and I can knock all their stories down.  Really, there are three that I can't knock down.

Of course, this is about threats and perceptions of threats.  So, who knows how congressional Republicans perceive the electoral threats here?

The problem for coalition-building is this:  how do you construct a replacement bill that manages not only everyone's policy beliefs, which aren't exactly the same, but variation in willingness to run electoral risks?

The thing is, there is an easy way out of the conundrum:  don't do a single bill repeal/single bill replace.  Just do piece-meal measures, dragged out over a long time.

That's why I still think there is a good chance Obamacare survives.  It solves strategic problems.  Those worried about primaries get to cast lots of "repeal" votes.  Those worried about general elections don't have to vote to repeal any actual benefits.

Of course, that leaves lots of internal dynamics in Congress for leaders to manage because what it doesn't do is give the hardliners a real repeal, and that's still hard to manage.  I guess I'll be writing about this for a while, huh?

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

Damn, that's a wretched picture...

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Coalition-building, policy tradeoffs and replacing Obamacare

One of the things I pointed out in yesterday's post summarizing Republicans' options on Obamacare is that the GOP is kind of backed into a corner if there are more than two Republican Senators who won't repeal without a replacement.  The big challenge for them has always been to coalesce around a replacement-- something that they have never managed to do.  Criticizing legislation is easy.  Legislating is hard.  Why?  Real world policy choices always involve tradeoffs, and in any group of people, not everyone sees the tradeoffs the same way.

Today, let's talk about policy tradeoffs

Markets aren't magic.  If you are poor, sick or both, the free market won't give you healthcare.  Period.  Why not?  It ain't profitable.  Either the government has to put a gun to the healthcare provider's head and force them to give you treatment, or they have to put a gun to a rich person's head, take that person's money and use that money to pay the provider.  Everything else is window dressing.  Are you OK with letting poor and sick people die because you don't want to put guns to peoples' heads?  Congratulations!  You are an anti-redistributionist!  Cut those government subsidies!  But that is a tradeoff.  Don't delude yourself otherwise.  People will die when they didn't have to because you got squeamish, you thing-that-Trump-grabs, you!

Are you OK with putting a gun to someone's head to get the money to save a life?  Don't delude yourself about what's going on just because you don't see the gun.  That is exactly what redistributionist policies are, you damned, fucking hippie who probably hates guns!  (You know the title of the blog, right?).

So there you have it.  Basic tradeoff.  Stick a gun to rich people's heads and save poor peoples' lives.  That's what you are doing when you tax rich people to redistribute the money to poor people for, say, healthcare.  Don't stick those guns to rich peoples' heads and let the poor people die.

And that's before we get into the macroeconomic effects of government policy!

How much money do you take?  How much healthcare do you provide?  Lots 'o' tradeoffs.

And not everybody in the GOP draws the line in the same place.  Now, that said, the GOP Senate caucus is a lot more homogeneous than some past legislative caucuses.  Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are the real outliers.  On our -1 to +1 "DW-NOMINATE" scale, Collins is at 0.0370, and Murkowski is at 0.1070.  Republican median in the 113th Senate?  0.576.  With 52 Republican Senators, the GOP can lose those two by making the benefits of the Obamacare replacement much more stingy, and they are down to 50.  Pence casts the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, and the budget reconciliation bill passes.  As long as they lose nobody else.  For any other reason.  Oh, and if they have to worry about one more person pealing off, then the GOP has to get Collins and Murkowski back, which means making the "replace" more generous, which risks alienating the hardliners...

And you know I've got more to write on this general topic, right?

Coalition-building is hard, and if repealing is contingent on replacing, a repeal really might not happen.  Right now, nothing is off the table.

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

Perhaps more rockabilly than country, but appropriate for today's post...

Friday, January 13, 2017

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

I always thought Chuck Mangione was a hack, but Danny Gatton could make anything work.  And, well...

Republicans' options on Obamacare

I don't know why so many commentators these days are so sure of a repeal.  Yes, the Senate passed a resolution clearing the way for a budget reconciliation (which I've addressed here as a way to avoid the 60 vote threshold and the nuclear option at the same time), but when enough Republican Senators pealed off and said that they would demand a "replace" at the same time as a "repeal," that should have been a big tipoff that this thing is far from over.  In 2009 and 2010, Obamacare was declared dead more times than a horror movie villain.  Repealing is hard.  Replacing is even harder.  With that in mind, let's just go through the options:

1)  Failure.  Failure is always an option.  If Republicans in the Senate won't "repeal" without a "replace," then repeal is contingent on "replace."  Replace is hard.  Lose three votes in the Senate (Collins, Murkowski and one more), and even with a purely budgetary replacement so that they can use "budget reconciliation" and avoid a filibuster, they can't pass it.  No replace = no repeal.

2)  Incremental change.  This can be done under the pretense that it will eventually go much further than it really will, but start passing repeals of things like the employer mandate and the medical device tax, make a big deal each time, and act like they will keep it going forever.  Eventually, the press will get distracted by OH MY FUCKING GOD, DID YOU HEAR WHAT TRUMP SAID?!

3)  Full repeal with the nuclear option.  No replace.  "Replace" is the pre-Obamacare system.  Yes, they can do this.  Eliminate the filibuster in the Senate on legislation the same way Harry Reid did for judicial nominations below SCOTUS, and just get rid of Obamacare entirely.  That way, we don't wind up with the non-budgetary requirement that insurance companies cover people with preexisting conditions without the financial support structures to make it possible, which would have created the health care death spiral.

4)  Full repeal with the nuclear option, replace with... something.  If the Republicans do a full repeal with the nuclear option, then they can structure a replacement however they want, touching whatever budgetary or regulatory systems they want.  It's just a matter of coalition-building.  Heh...  "just."  Funny, right?

5)  Partial repeal with budget reconciliation, partial replace with Democratic support.  I don't know why I am throwing this in here, because it is a pipe dream, but it seems to be somebody's pipe dream.  Repeal part of Obamacare using budget reconciliation (which the Senate set the groundwork for doing recently) on a party-line vote using only Republican votes because they can't overcome a Democratic filibuster, and then get some Democratic votes for a replacement.  This is one of two ways to get a replacement with non-budgetary stuff, because non-budgetary legislation can be filibustered.  The other is to go full nuclear, but if that's the tactic, then why not just start with the nuclear option?

6)  Partial repeal with budget reconciliation, partial replace without Democratic support.  Since this option is limited to budget reconciliation too, the replacement can also only be on budgetary stuff.  Neither the repeal nor the replace can touch the non-budgetary, regulatory structure of Obamacare.  Touching that requires either Democratic support, or going nuclear, but if they are going to go nuclear, just start with that.  McConnell already showed that he doesn't want to do that, for whatever reason.  We'll see how long that lasts, but that limits the options.

So, there you have it.  That's a lot that could happen, and failure is always an option on healthcare.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

What we know, don't know, and cannot know about Trump, Russia and blackmail potential

Before I get into the details here, let's take a moment to appreciate this.  I am about to write a serious post about whether or not the incoming President is going to be blackmailed to do the bidding of Russia.  This post is not a John Birch Society post (look 'em up, kids).  This post is prompted by the heads of the US intelligence agencies briefing both the current and incoming Presidents on the possibility of the Russians having dirt on the incoming President that they might use to blackmail him.  And we know that briefing occurred.  Yeah, how dare CNN report on that...

So, here's what we cannot know:  what, if anything, Russia has on Trump.  If they do have dirt on him, it doesn't do them any good if we get the specifics.  The whole point of blackmail is that it doesn't work anymore once the dirt gets out.  So, there is a level at which the speculation here is just silly.

What do we know?

1)  Putin wanted Trump to win.

2)  Putin intervened to try to help Trump win.

3)  Trump has expressed admiration for Putin.

4)  Trump has expressed hesitation about defending NATO allies from Putin.

5)  Trump has at least indirect ties to Putin, through Manafort and now Tillerson.

Now, what else can we say?

Is there more dirt on Trump?  Of course.  Salacious possibilities aside, the easiest dirt out there on him would be his tax returns.  We know Trump REALLY REALLY REALLY doesn't want anyone to see those.  Ever.  What is so bad in those returns?  The obvious answer is always that he isn't as rich as he claims, but who knows what else is hiding in the numbers?  Regardless, Trump REALLY doesn't want anyone to see his tax returns, and all Russia would need to have something to hold over him is to get a copy of one of his tax returns.

Next, would Russia try to get dirt on him?  Of course.  Every country will look for dirt on the leader of every other country.

Having blackmail-able leaders is... bad.  Ideally, then, we don't want leaders with blackmail-able stuff in their past.

Next, speculatively, is what Russia could get from Trump.  Remember that last summer, Trump said that he wouldn't necessarily defend our NATO allies if Putin invaded them.  Why not?  Is that indifference to our allies and treaty obligations?  If so, then there is no need to blackmail him.  Remember, also, that Trump seriously hero-worships Putin.  Part of the reason that Putin wanted Trump as President was that Trump would be naturally inclined to act in ways that Putin wanted.

It is easy to think of Putin as a Bond villain, ordering people around malevolently, but villainy works best when you have people in place who do what you want because it is what they want to do.  Blackmail turns people into enemies.  It is a short-term thing, and as soon as you use it, the other person starts looking for a way to retaliate.  Putin is smarter than that.

Yet, if it is there, it is there.  In any dealing, Trump might give just a tiny bit more to Putin than he otherwise would, which is, admittedly, a lot.

Look, we don't want Putin to have dirt on the President, and we don't know if he does.  Really, though, Trump is already predisposed to act in ways that Putin wants.  That's why Putin was so keen on seeing Trump in office, and why he intervened in the US election to try to make that happen.

Wow.  We really are discussing this.  Wow.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Will today be the craziest day yet?

Cory Booker is testifying against a Senate colleague's confirmation as AG, and that isn't even close to the craziest thing happening today?  Russian operatives may or may not have compromising information on Trump, but it was serious enough that the intelligence chiefs briefed both Obama and Trump about it, and Trump is finally giving a press conference amid this?

I...  more to come...

Sessions, racism and false dichotomies

Well, that hearing was interesting.  Obviously, Sessions says he isn't a racist, even though he was denied a federal judgeship on the grounds that he is a racist.

Note my language.  Racist or not racist.  Two choices.  It ain't that easy, kids.

Sessions denies that he is a racist, sincerely believing that he cannot be characterized as such.  In all likelihood, he has never participated in a cross-burning or lynching.  (If evidence surfaces of that, well...)  If that is the standard for what constitutes a racist, then anyone who doesn't fit that bill must, by definition, be "not racist."  Therein lies the problem of the dichotomy.

Buzzword time!  "Precision."  You think you know what that means.  You don't.  In social science terms, it refers to how fine-grained your measure is.  There are a hell of a lot more than two categories here.  In the National Election Studies survey, for example, we ask people to rate their "feelings" towards African-Americans and other groups on a 100-point "feeling thermometer," with higher scores being "warmer," and more positive.  In 2012,  22.7% put African-Americans at precisely 50, meaning neutral.  15% put them at the very top-- 100.  1.1% admitted to really hating African-Americans, putting them at 0.  Arithmetic mean:  67.39.  By contrast, 19.2% put whites at 50, 14.2% put whites at 100, 0.7% put whites at 0, and the arithmetic mean was 72.13.  So, people's assessments of African-Americans were somewhat more negative, on average.  Shocker, right?

Of course, what do those numbers mean?  We don't really know.  What we want to know is how people behave.  So, think of it this way:  you are asked to look over resumes, and call people in for job interviews.  Two identical resumes.  One is from an applicant with the first name, "Emily," the other is from an applicant with the first name, "Lakisha."  Everything else is identical.  You should have an equal probability of calling either.  Would you?

This has actually been studied experimentally.  "Lakisha" is less likely to get a call for an interview.  Why?  The name is more common among African-Americans.  But, the effect is probabilistic.  Even at the individual level, there is a lower probability that you will call Lakisha.  And that could change from day to day.  Based on what?  Daily experiences.  The fact that it varies over time, across individuals, and does so probabilistically, though, means that we cannot dichotomize racism.  It makes no substantive sense, from a social science perspective, to classify people as "racist" or "not racist."  Empirically, we want to measure peoples' attitudes towards race, and what makes people more likely to make certain types of decisions, but it isn't a dichotomy.  Some people are more likely to ignore Lakisha's resume than others, but it is probabilistic.

The dichotomization of racism makes no social scientific sense.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Wrapping up the "Assessing democracy..." series

With confirmation hearings starting up and Obamacare votes in the works, I can stop stalling, so it's about time to wrap this thing up.

The whole point of this series has been the basic observation that the framers were actually pretty nervous about what happens when voters make decisions.  They didn't trust voters with too much power.  The president wasn't supposed to be directly elected, nor was the Senate.  Why?  Damned, stupid voters...  That really was what the framers basically thought.  Go read The Federalist Papers.  The House of Representatives was supposed to be directly elected to respond to the will of the people, and the Senate and the President were supposed to be indirectly elected, chosen by more sophisticated people, but just not inherited positions.  Why?  Partly to keep things from responding too quickly to the fickle, whimsical people.

And 2016, well...  It is sort of unique.  Voters recognized that one candidate was grossly unqualified.  They voted for him anyway.  Those decisions could not be rationalized with other conventional "valence" characteristics, nor really with a well-defined location in the liberal-conservative policy dimension that political scientists often use in spatial models.  Really, the decision to vote for the unqualified candidate (aside from his own co-partisans) occurred to maintain the sanctity of the DDRRDDRR pattern which has mostly characterized presidential election voting patterns in the post-WWII era.  This has led to the election of someone that the electorate knew was unfit for office.  If nothing else, this must be characterized as a failure of rationality unless we abide by the most strict form of the axiom of revealed preferences, in which case there is no point evaluating the rationality of any action.

And yet the very uniqueness of 2016 leaves us in a puzzlement.  This hasn't happened before.  Despite the bizarre and arbitrary nature of DDRRDDRR, it has never resulted in a president who so closely resembles President Camacho, having actually appeared in both wrestling and even a Playboy movie (yes, really), but never having been involved in policy-making at any level.

So, yeah, that happened.  But, this series is about "assessing democracy."  So, um, compared to what?  This was actually the theme of the first couple of posts.  Yes, that matters!  A lot!  How many elections do we count?  Just the ones since the Voting Rights Act?  The ones since McGovern-Fraser, because of the new winnowing mechanism?  Then, in contrast, what system is more likely to avoid giving power to someone like Trump?  I still don't have any answers there.

DDRRDDRR is a stupid way to pick a president.  But, well, I'll let the good Colonel handle this one...

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trump's surrogates admit it was Russia. That isn't necessarily a good thing.

You may have missed this if you don't watch the Sunday talk shows.  Incidentally, you should never watch the Sunday talk shows.  I don't.  I just read the write-ups when something interesting happens.  Much faster and less painful that way.

Anywho, Chris Wallace got Reince Priebus to admit that Russia was behind the DNC hacks.  It took repeated questioning, and Wallace made sure that Priebus didn't leave himself any rhetorical wiggle room in his eventual answer.  The formal position of the Trump administration is now that Russia was behind the hacks.

There must be a certain satisfaction among those residing in the fact-based universe that the Trump people are finally admitting what everyone has known since last summer, and getting Trump to admit even basic facts is never easy.

But this isn't a victory.

It is now the formal position of the Trump administration that Putin helped get Trump elected.  That makes diplomatic relations between Trump and Putin really hard.  It automatically puts Trump in a subordinate position.  Would he have been anyway?  Well, that's hard to say.  Trump doesn't really want much.  Mostly, he just wants to be feted.  Prior to this admission, though, there was pretense, and the pretense was diplomatically useful.  That pretense is now gone.

The irony, of course, is that there was never any reason to believe that the Russia hacks had any real influence on the outcome.  Wikileaks put out their data dump right before the Democratic Convention, and caused a bit of a stir, leading mostly to the sacking of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, but Clinton's polling numbers went up after the convention, so there was never any evidence of the hacks doing any damage to Clinton in the race.  Of course, one could argue that she would have gotten a bigger polling bounce from the convention without the hacks, but there isn't a shred of evidence to support that.

Compare that to Comey and his meddling.  Comey announced that he was reopening the FBI investigation of Clinton two weeks before the election, and the polling numbers moved "bigly," as Trump would say.  Big enough to sway the upper-midwest states that surprisingly pulled Trump over the edge in the electoral college.

So, no, Trump does not owe his presidency to Putin the way he does to Comey.  But, the admission from Priebus puts Trump in a very awkward diplomatic position.  It would have been awkward anyway, but now?

There are consequences here, and they aren't necessarily good.

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

Wait a minute.  This guy isn't even American!  He's a... Russian!!!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part XVII: Mechanistic voting and democratic theory

I promise, I'm almost done with this.  It's been a stalling tactic until stuff started happening again.

When I left off with part... fuck... 16 in this series, the basic observation was that while political science models built around spatial theory and valence characteristics would have given the edge to Clinton, not just in a predictive sense, but a normative one, the mechanistic patterns of how people actually vote in presidential elections gave 2016 to the Republicans.  DDRRDDRR.  Democrats had won two in a row.  The economy was growing, but only tepidly.  The Republicans were due to win next.  The Republicans won.  Everything else just... canceled out.

At the end of the day, it really is amazing how mechanical presidential elections are.  And that leads us to a basic theoretical question about the nature of democracy.  Hence... "assessing democracy!"  If the mechanistic nature of voting in a presidential election gives the White House to someone the electorate knows is grossly unqualified for the job, who is more dishonest than his opponent, and likely to govern in a more ideologically extreme manner, then in every respect, something screwed up.  Badly.  Why?  For the sake of maintaining DDRRDDRR.

The electorate is charged with making important decisions about who will make important decisions.  On what basis?  Well, policy platforms, personal characteristics, all of that good stuff.  It is really hard to make the case that the most important thing to do is to maintain the sanctity of DDRRDDRR.

The electorate chose an unqualified fuckwit who does not understand nuclear weapons.  I'm playin' this again.

It is important to note, here, that Scarborough is one of Trump's allies in the media.  That, itself, is the subject of regular scrutiny.

So, what are the implications of mechanistic voting?  It really depends on the winnowing process before we get to the general election.  To quote Boss Tweed, "I don't care who does the electing so long as I get to do the nominating."

As long as the choices for D and R are winnowed down to people who aren't Trump-level unqualified fuckwits, the mechanistic nature of DDRR and the Abramowitz "Time for a Change" model, which adds in the economy and presidential approval to moderate it, won't cause the kind of objective failure that 2016 was, and yes, I will call 2016 an objective failure.  When the electorate gives the White House to someone they know is unqualified for the job, something screwed up.

Of course, this brings me back to my favorite book to bash.  The Party Decides!  Yes, that's the book that I basically started this blog to smear.  I never liked that fuckin' book.  It basically argued that party elites control the nominating process by signaling to voters who the right choice is, through endorsements, so unqualified fuckwits like Trump would never have a chance!  Yeah, I've never liked that book, I've never bought their model, and I've been picking on them for a long time.

But if their argument were right, we wouldn't be in this mess.  DDRRDDRR would have given us Marco Rubio or someone like that.  If you are reading a political science professor's blog, you probably don't like Marco Rubio much either, but cut the crap.  Marco Rubio wouldn't have to ask three times why we can't just go around nuking everyone.  That's special, Trump-level stupidity.  We wouldn't be asking right now whether or not the incoming president is in Vladimir Putin's pocket.  Marco Rubio is a generic Republican.  Trump is a special kind of disaster, and it is the failure of the winnowing process that gave us this disaster, combined with the mechanistic nature of general election voting.

How problematic, then, is the mechanistic pattern of presidential elections?  Well, it would be a hell of a lot less problematic if The Party Decides were right.  Too bad that book was always, obviously, bullshit.

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

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Trump, the wall, the media and broken promises?

Another break from "Assessing democracy..."  Stuff is happening again!  Stuff!

Anyway, quick synopsis, which you probably already know.  The Trump people are planning to ask Congress to appropriate money for a Mexican border wall.  The press reported it as such.  Since one of Trump's main campaign promises was to make Mexico pay for the wall, this looks, um, slightly unkosher.  Trump responded with a tweet about the "dishonest" media not reporting that he is going to force Mexico to reimburse for it.

This actually gets right into the gist of yesterday's piece at The Conversation.  Is Trump breaking his promise on the border wall, and if so, is this my model playing itself out?

I'm actually... ever so slightly sympathetic to Trump here.

Hypothetically, suppose that Trump could force Mexico to reimburse for the wall.  If so, then would he be breaking his promise by having Congress appropriate money for the wall, then getting reimbursed later?

No.  He'd be keeping it.

The proper way to cover the story, then, depends on whether or not one believes that Trump is capable of keeping his campaign promise.  Will Trump try?  Almost certainly.  The problem here is that Trump just doesn't know a single fucking thing about politics, government, international relations, etc.

The principle here is known as the "Dunning-Kruger effect," from a series of psychology studies (yet to be debunked in their ongoing replication crisis, unlike most of the field--  ZING!).  Basically, incompetent people lack the competence to know how incompetent they are.  Trump inherited a bunch of money, had a mixed business record in the real estate industry, then really struck it rich branding his own name and going on tv, playing the character of the real estate mogul.  This, circularly, made him actually rich, convincing him that he really is great at deals.  So, he almost certainly thinks he can force Mexico to pay.

If he thinks he is going to get Mexico to reimburse us, we can't even call this one a "lie."  It isn't a lie if you believe it.  It's just... ludicrous.

The problem, of course, is that he will have no real policy tools to force Mexico to pay (no, the impounded remittances thing won't work).  International relations don't work that way, and even if he could inflict real suffering on Mexico, they can never give in because once they cave to extortion, they abandon their national sovereignty.

This is tangled.  Everyone who isn't a Trumpkin knows that Mexico won't be paying for that wall.  Yet, you can understand why Trump reacts the way he does here!  He really does believe that he is going to keep his promise, and if one accepts the premise that Mexico could be forced to pay up, which was always his premise, then there is no inconsistency between what he is doing now and his initial promise, in which case there would be a problem with how the media are (yes, "are") covering the announcement that he will ask Congress to appropriate money for the wall initially.

Yes, I think I just sort of defended Trump.

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

Friday, January 6, 2017

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

Today's article at The Conversation was all about this, so...

(And anyone who wants a good chuckle can read the comment thread that is building up on that one.  I haven't read the whole thing closely because, ya' know, I'm not going to get sucked into that morass, but I took a gander...  Anyway, it sort of made my point for me.  I pointed out that pointing out that Trump is a liar gets one accused of liberal bias.  I got accused of liberal bias!  Well, we just had a shooting, so maybe I'll piss off the liberals by writing about guns...)

Assessing democracy in the aftermath of Trump's victory, Part XVI: The mechanical nature of elections

Once we strip away the bullshit, empirical political science basically got 2016 right.  The fundamental circumstances of 2016 predicted a close election, leaning Republican.  Alan Abramowitz's "Time for a Change" model-- the model I have always favored (but admittedly lost faith in this year)-- is based on GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year, the incumbent president's popularity, and a penalty that kicks in when one party has won two elections in a row.  Abramowitz's model predicted a Republican victory because GDP growth wasn't high enough to overcome the two-term penalty the Democrats were facing.  Everything else just... canceled out.

The point of the last bunch of posts in the series was that it shouldn't have done so, in rational choice terms.  The spatial models that political scientists have been using since Anthony Downs's An Economic Theory of Democracy puts candidates on a left-right spectrum, and the candidate closest to the median voter is supposed to win, unless something is fucked up.  While Trump has no location on that spectrum, he will rubber-stamp Paul Ryan's legislation, and since Ryan is more extreme than Hillary Clinton, that makes Trump effectively more extreme than Clinton, so in Downsian terms, we've got a rational choice failure.

Then, we've got "valence."  Donald Stokes introduced the concept of valence "issues," which are the issues where voters agree on outcomes, but disagree on who can provide those outcomes, like a strong economy.  Rational choice theorists have spent years including valence "dimensions" in their models, to capture personal characteristics that voters just intrinsically want, like competence and honesty because voters might accept an extremist if the centrist has a low score on the valence dimension.

Problem:  Trump objectively lies more than Clinton, has no relevant experience, and knows nothing about public policy.  He scores lower on the "competence and honesty" valence traits than Clinton, so Clinton has a policy and valence advantage.

And yet Abramowitz wins.  DDRRDDRRDDRRDDRRDD

How many elections would I have to flip for that to have been the perfect pattern from 1944 through 2012?  One.  1980.  If that had been a D, it would have been DDRR the whole way through.

And there is no policy justification for that pattern, in the way that there is for the Downsian spatial model.  There is no theoretical justification in the way that there is for valence characteristics.  Skeptics of the Abramowitz predictive model always bring up the point that it is atheoretical.  There is no reason to think that it should be true.

And they are right!  There's also no theoretical reason to think that quantum mechanics should work.  But, those equations sure seem to predict stuff!

2008 and 2012 were D years.  R came next.  R won.  Should R have won?  In a Downsian sense, no.  Trump will rubber-stamp Paul Ryan, who is far more extreme than Clinton.  In valence-terms, Trump certainly shouldn't have won.

And voters knew that.  One of the ironies is that voters knew that Trump isn't qualified to be president.

What was there to over-ride that concern?


R came next.  It was mechanical.  The mechanical nature of the process gave the presidency to a man that most voters knew wasn't qualified to be president.

That poses some important questions for us to ask about democracy!

Quick note: New piece on Trump and the media at The Conversation

For those who care, I have a new piece up at The Conversation on Trump, the media, and the past and future of nonpartisan journalism.

I'll just add one observation about it.  The article talks about rational audiences because it is based around this paper, which uses a game-theoretic model.  It is ironic that the article goes up at The Conversation while I am in the middle of a loooooong, drawn-out series here called "Assessing democracy..." about how the 2016 election was a failure of rational choice theory.

Three ways to take this:

1)  Even if news audiences were rational, that wouldn't save us from the problems I was describing in the article at The Conversation and the boring, academic paper it references.

2)  2016 was sort of a uniquely problematic election, in some respects, as I have been describing in the "Assessing democracy..." series here.

3)  The old, George E.P. Box line: All models are wrong, some are useful.

Anyway, so I write different stuff in different contexts.  Sue me.

PS: Don't sue me.