Tuesday, February 28, 2017

What matters in tonight's speech (Hint: nothing)

Yes, tonight President Donald Trump gives an address to a joint session of Congress.  I really just typed that.  What matters?

Not much, really.

There are four audiences:  Congressional Republicans, Congressional Democrats, the public, and the press.

Congressional Republicans basically don't give a shit what he says.  They are divided over Obamacare.  The hardliners want a repeal with only a symbolic replacement, the few remaining moderates, like Collins, want the replacement to be at least vaguely comparable in scope and the tacticians basically don't want to go through with repeal because they are afraid that if they do it, they will face electoral penalties the way Democrats did for passing the thing back in 2010, as I have explained before.  Nothing Trump says will resolve these differences.  And if he starts demanding a trade war, well...

Congressional Democrats are just going to seethe.  Nothing he says to them matters.

The public is similarly polarized.  You can check in on Trump's approval ratings over at Gallup any time you want, although I'm sure Trump would call it "fake news."  Most of the public won't watch.  The only people who will tune in are the politically active.  That means partisans.  Nobody will be moved.

Then, there's the media, who have become separate actors because Trump has made them so to an extent that no previous political figure has.  He will get good coverage from Fox no matter what he says and bad coverage from MSNBC no matter what he says.  Now, part of that is that the ideological content of his speech will be conservative, having been written by other people who actually know what conservatism is.  There is no way that a conservative network will bash a conservative speech, even if badly given, and there is no way a liberal network will praise it.

I don't think I've missed anyone, and the basic point is that everyone's reaction is basically predetermined.

Of course, though, presidential addresses can come with moments like this:

Congressional Democrats have about as much respect for Trump as Rep. Joe Wilson had for Obama.  Wilson fake-apologized for doing this, and then raised a shit-load of money off of it.  Ultimately, Wilson's stunt didn't amount to much, except that I still reference it, but I wonder what the Democrats have in store for Trump.

This is all pointless theater.  Go read a book instead.  I have to watch this shit, but you don't need to subject yourself to it.

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

No thematic connections today.  I was going to go with something Korean, but, um, I don't know anything about Korean music.  So, here's something completely different.  I doubt I'll have an opportunity to use the music of La Reunion otherwise, unless Trump just nukes them for fun, in which case we'll have bigger problems.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Why Susan Collins isn't talking much about Obamacare

For all of the sturm und drang in the Republican Party right now about repeal-and-replace, Susan Collins has been remarkably quiet lately.  I wrote yesterday that we shouldn't put too much stock in the specifics that have come out lately because Collins hasn't weighed in yet, and the position she takes, along with Cassidy and Murkowski, will determine whether or not the latest maneuvers even matter at all.  Why isn't she rushing to a microphone?  Aside from the fact that her voice is annoying as hell.  (Really.  Have you heard it?  As long as people are talking about another movie version of Dune, if they stick with that weirding module thing that wasn't in the books, the sound of her voice could power something that explodes obelisks out of raw irritation).  A few possibilities:

1)  She is counting votes behind the scenes.  In the Senate, she can do this on her own.  Collins needs to know two things.  First, are the Senate GOP willing to live with leaving Obamacare in place?  If not, then she, Cassidy and Murkowski hold all of the cards.  They can hold firm in opposition to anything other than Collins-Cassidy, then CC is the only thing that can pass, and they win.  Second, though, how many of them are unwilling to vote for Collins-Cassidy, for position-taking purposes, because it isn't conservative enough?  This is the harder question.  Some of them will worry about getting primaried if they don't stick with the most conservative "replace" option, even though they think CC a win on policy.  Collins needs to count those votes.  That's a behind-closed-doors process.  (Usual disclaimer:  fears of primaries are way overblown, but that doesn't mean the fears don't exist).

2)  She needs to see everyone else's cards.  Until there are other proposals, she is refraining from action because as long as her plan is the main one on the table, there just isn't much to do.  When other plans are more formalized, she can act accordingly.

3)  Collins sees things the way Boehner does.  She doesn't think anything will happen, so why bother?  If constituents press her on why she didn't try to repeal and replace Obamacare, she can say she was the first one in the Senate to offer a real alternative, and those layabouts in the Senate did what they always do.  Lay about.

4)  She has no plan.  She's just making this up as she goes.  Pro-tip for Sen. Collins if that's the case: hiding in a refrigerator won't save you if somebody tries to keep this going for too long and McConnell winds up using the nuclear option to try to pass something purer...

Why is Collins keeping quiet?  I don't know.  I'm just laying out some possibilities.

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Movement on Obamacare repeal?

As you may have read, things are maaaaaaaybe moving along on an Obamacare replacement plan.  Republicans are working on plans that aren't Collins-Cassidy, Governors are freaking out because they have relied on Medicaid expansion to close some of their budgetary gaps, etc.

Pay no attention yet.

Assume that Murkowski joins Collins and Cassidy, and wait until those three weigh in on whatever comes along.  One of several things will happen.

1)  Those three will tell the rest of the GOP to go fuck themselves.  It's Collins-Cassidy or Obamacare stays, in which case nothing happening right now matters.

2)  Those three demand extensive changes to the proposals circulating right now, in which case the form of what we are seeing now is irrelevant.

3)  John Boehner was right, and this is all just prelude to a GOP circular firing squad in which everyone blames everyone else for the inevitable failure of repeal-and-replace, which was doomed from the get-go.

So, yes, the outlines of a replacement plan are currently circulating.  The likelihood of actual policy resembling those outlines at any future point in time?  Minimal.  Either it will serve as a baseline from which Susan Collins make demands, backed by Bill Cassidy and Lisa Murkowski, it will get thrown in the garbage as the Senate adopts Collins-Cassidy, forcing the House to do the same, or this is all just a joke.

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

For Donald, obviously.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

What Trump's attacks on the press can and cannot do


Yeah, let that word sink in.  John McCain has thrown it around in reference to Trump's attempts to denigrate the press, and if you haven't seen it, even Sean Spicer used to acknowledge that the government can't ban press outlets from White House briefings the way the Trump campaign did from campaign events.  Of course, now that Trump is President and still setting land-speed records in sprint-lying, the White House is holding briefings that the New York Times, CNN and other outlets are banned from attending.


Yeah, we're there.

And it's only February 25.


He was just inaugurated last month.

Donald Trump idolizes dictators.  He idolizes Putin, who murders journalists for criticizing him.  This is not a coincidence.  But this is also not a dictatorship.  Trump does not have the institutional capacity to do what Putin does.  If he did, he would have shipped CNN off to concentration camps rather than just banned them from a press briefing.  There is a real worry here, but that is not it.

Here is the real worry.  Information bubbles.  Trump can't destroy CNN, the New York Times, or other news organizations he doesn't like.  The more he criticizes them, the more Democrats like them, and the more locked in some of their business gets.  What Trump wants to do is convince as many voters as possible to depend entirely on Fox and other Republican-friendly outlets.  We like to talk about the polarization of the media, but the thing is, most people who pay attention to the news in some form are news grazers.  Very few people just get home from work, turn on Fox or MSNBC and rely exclusively on that network.  Very few people make either HuffPo or RedState their home page and stay there for all news.  The sharing of news stories through social media makes news grazing even easier.  If you are clicking on a link sent to you by some friend/relative/coworker/troll, it could be from a variety of sources (and might be total bullshit).

No, Trump isn't shipping the employees of CNN off to a Siberian gulag, although Putin might offer soon.  Ya' know, as a gesture of friendship.  What he wants to do is convince people to stop grazing.  Get their news exclusively from Fox, Breitbart, and other news sources that won't challenge him.  Or better yet...

It is strange to think about the fact that this is the most generous, least scary reading of what Trump is doing.  The least terrifying version is that he isn't planning to go full Putin-- he just wants to marginalize real journalists as much as possible so that as many people as possible listen to shills who never challenge anything he says, even when he tells blatant lies.

Checking in at PolitiFact (with the usual warning that I don't like a lot about how they work), Trump currently has a 17% "pants on fire" rating and a 33% "false" rating, with another 19% "mostly false."

Information bubbles are extremely dangerous.  What I find fascinating and terrifying is that elite Republicans know that Trump doesn't have any commitment to their cause.  Rubio, Cruz, Romney, Perry... Think of the shit they have said about him.  They know that Trump is a con man, who will turn on anyone because he has no loyalty to anyone other than himself.  Yet, they are willing to hand him the power to be the sole arbiter of truth for half the country.

Here, Mr. Psychopath, sir, have a knife.  Now, let me turn my back to you because I trust that you will use the knife only on the people that I don't like and never on me.  If I get stabbed, please rename the Darwin Award in my honor.

Oh, and that dictatorship thing?  After what I just wrote, in Russia, I'd be dead (told in Yakov Smirnoff accent).  Those articles I keep writing for The Conversation?  They get picked up by major news outlets, and they'd get me on a list.

Hi, Mr. Comey!

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

Friday, February 24, 2017

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

Hellborg is a Swede, so why not?  The rest are Americans.  Besides, with the chaos leading up to CPAC, I just couldn't resist this one, even if it is more fusion than jazz.  Too bad they couldn't invite Denny Hastert to CPAC, right?

The smartest Republican tactician I've seen thinks repeal-and-replace won't happen

John Boehner.  I've never been shy in my praise for the guy.  When he was, um, sacked, he was the unfortunate victim of circumstances beyond his control.  I had written, in advance, that his Speakership couldn't possibly be stable.  Short version:  extreme polarization and divided government made normal legislation pointless during his reign.  That stripped the legislative agenda down to items that avoided "reversion points" like government shutdowns and debt ceiling breaches, but a bunch of people in his own caucus actually thought those "reversion points" were kind of OK.  Boehner referred to these people as "knuckleheads."  The problem was that if Boehner wanted to avoid these calamities (which he did), he had to split his own party, rather than the normal task of keeping his party unified.  That was an intrinsically unstable leadership position.  So, when he was... sacked, it was neither a surprise nor his fault.  In fact, I thought that he did remarkably well given the constraints on him.  Without Boehner, we really might have had a debt ceiling breach back in 2011, and maybe a couple more times.  Time and again, Boehner saved all our asses.  A smart guy who was always in a difficult position.

I often likened him to Burgess Meredith from that Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough At Last."  All he wanted was to be Speaker.  When he finally got it, it was with a caucus filled with knuckleheads.  Kind of like those broken glasses.

Anyway, Boehner now says repeal-and-replace won't happen.  Caveat emptor:  This is quintessential Politico.  Ask an insider because insiders know the real deal.  As a general rule, I kind of think that Politico is borderline trash.  Insiders give good quotes, but they are frequently morons.  The knuckleheads who drove Boehner from office are insiders too.  Here's my favorite gem from Rep. Ted Yoho (R- where else?, FL), knucklehead extraordinaire.  On not raising the debt ceiling:  "I think personally, it would bring stability to the world markets."  Yup, that's some real insider knowledge right there, buddy.  You begin to see my problem with the Politico model of just asking insiders.

So why do I care that Boehner calls bullshit on the repeal-and-replace thing?  Because Boehner, more than anybody else, knows what can and cannot get through the tangled mess of the congressional Republican majority.  Republicans have spent seven years talking about replacing Obamacare without actually specifying a replacement.  I strongly suspect Boehner at least tried to do something.  And if he did, he failed.  And if he couldn't do it, I wouldn't put much stock in anyone else's ability.

Like I said, I pretty much think Boehner was one of the smartest Republican tacticians we have seen.  His opinion carries some weight with me.  How much?  I've been pretty wishy-washy on this for a while.  This edges me ever-so-slightly away from repeal.

Remember, Collins, Murkowski and Paul have all said that they won't vote for a repeal without a simultaneous replacement.  There are 52 Senate Republicans, so they can only lose two votes on the replacement.  If they lose more than two votes on the replacement in the Senate, the replacement can't pass.  If the replacement can't pass, they lose at least three votes on the repeal in the Senate, and the repeal fails.  Obamacare stays.

What's going to happen?  I don't know.  Donald Trump is President.  He had never held elected office before, nor served in the military, but he had been involved in professional wrestling and appeared in porn, just like President Camacho in Idiocracy.  I don't know what's possible anymore.  The Onion has been reading like real news, as for example with this gem about how the FBI is nervous about Trump getting access to classified information.  In real life, the CIA is withholding information from Trump, according to the Wall Street Journal.  When The Onion reads like the Wall Street Journal and the real President has a resume like the President in Idiocracy, all bets are off.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The DNC election and allegations of anti-semitism

Anti-semitism.  It's not just for the alt-right!

You may have heard that there is some interesting business going on at the DNC, with a leading candidate having been accused of anti-semitism.  Specifically, Keith Ellison, who made some remarks about US foreign policy basically being controlled by Israel.  So, is that really anti-semitism?

There is some academic history here.  About ten years ago, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published an absolutely atrocious book called The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.  Normally, I link to books, but this one, nope.  I ain't linkin' to that piece of shit.  Walt and Mearsheimer were actual academics rather than your usual nazi scumbags, but if you want an idea of what they did, here it is:  take a neo-nazi screed about how the jews and their filthy, filthy money run the world and replace "jews" with "Israel lobby," and there you go.  The "Israel lobby" controls everything.  With their filthy, filthy money.  Instant classic in the realm of pseudo-intellectual, anti-semitic, conspiracy theorizing.

If you want to go deep down the rabbit hole Googling critiques of that garbage, that's your wasted time.  Mearsheimer and Walt were never actually scholars of interest groups in American politics, though, and they never bothered to dig deeply into the literature, so they never bothered to learn anything about how shit actually works.  If you want the short version about why US foreign policy is so pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian, here it is:  there is a relatively large contingent of Americans who are pro-Israel.  The pro-Palestinian contingent is tinier than Donald Trump's hands and support for their cause among the public is thinner than his skin.


1)  Americans don't like terrorists.  It's sort of an open question what public opinion would be if Palestinians went the Gandhi route, but they haven't.  The rest of the world gets their hackles up when Israel responds with asymmetric force.  That kind of argument doesn't hold weight with Americans.

Americans cheer for this kind of stuff.

2)  Evangelicals support Israel.  This is a weird thing that people don't want to talk about, but it has something to do with bringing about the apocalypse.  Yes, seriously.  Back when we had an actual evangelical in the White House, this led to some complicated politics.  Here is a fun, but quick old read.

3)  Neo-conservatives oppose the non-democratic (small-d) states throughout the Middle East based on the "democratic peace hypothesis."  Democratic states don't fight each other, so we should spread peace in the long run by toppling non-democratic states, even if that means fighting wars in the short run.  So, neo-conservatives back Israel as an opponent to the worst states in the Middle East, and it is more democratic than they are, even if you object to its treatment of Palestinians.  (Many don't.)

4)  Anti-islamic sentiment.  Yeah, this is mixed in here too.  Let's not pretend otherwise.

So, yes, American foreign policy has a clear pro-Israel slant.  And it doesn't have a fucking thing to do with the power of AIPAC, or lobbyists, or money, or any of that nonsense.

Mearsheimer and Walt (nice, German-sounding names) wrote a horrible book that simply didn't bother to do any real reading on how interest group politics work, or how policy-making works, so they wrote something that sounded like what happens if you take an anti-semitic screed and replace "jews" with "the Israel lobby."

Funny, but people got upset about that.  I still remember the dust-ups.

Now, for context, here's what got Keith Ellison in trouble:  "The United States foreign policy in the Middle East is governed by [emphasis added] what is good or bad for a country of 7 million people."

In the context of Walt and Mearsheimer, this sounds a lot like "AIPAC runs our country," which sounds a lot like "we are controlled by the jews and their filthy, filthy money."

We have long since accepted the concept that anti-black racism has gone into code because simply throwing around the n-word just doesn't work anymore.  What Ellison said was basically what Walt and Mearsheimer said.  Walt and Mearsheimer have basically been ex-communicated from real academic discourse for writing a book that was anti-semitic and stupid.

I didn't pay money for Walt & Mearsheimer's book because, FUCK them, but I've read it, so I've heard Ellison's schtick before.  If you want to read that fucking book, that's your choice, but at least now you know some history behind the kind of shit Ellison says.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Kenneth Arrow and that Breitbart shitgibbon: On being a true provocateur

Kenneth Arrow just died.  You may not have heard of him, but he was one of the most important scholars of the 20th Century, and the author of my favorite piece of scholarship:  Social Choice and Individual Values.  He was a true provocateur.  He won a Nobel Prize for it, and fuck you if you challenge the legitimacy of the Nobel for Economics just because it wasn't an original Nobel.

Also, Milo YiaHaHaHaHa now joins Cliven Bundy as persona non grata among his former friends because apparently he is a card-carrying member of NAMBLA.  If you don't know, don't Google it.  Milo is and always has been nothing more than a troll, and since he has never been an even remotely entertaining troll, I have never understood why anyone elevated him to the stature that brought him to my attention, or anyone else's.  He calls himself a provocateur.

The late Kenneth Arrow was a true provocateur.  If you read this blog often enough, you will find me writing things like the following:  there is no such thing as democracy, or the will of the people.  I get that from Kenneth Arrow and his provocations.  He won a Nobel for it.  He is most famous for what is known as the "impossibility theorem."  Essentially, he said that there are five conditions that a rule should meet for a decision-making system to be democratic, in lay-terms:

1)  Non-dictatorship.  There should be no single person whose preferences determine the outcome regardless of what anyone else wants.

2)  Independence of irrelevant alternatives.  If a group prefers A to B, introducing C shouldn't make them suddenly like B more.

3)  Monotonicity.  If one member of the group decides to move an option up in his rankings, that shouldn't move that option down in the group's rankings.

4)  Non-imposition.  There can't be a result that is simply forbidden, and unachievable by any set of preferences, no matter what each group member's preferences are.

5)  Universality.  The system must produce a complete and deterministic ranking that is consistent each time.

Arrow wrote it in heavier, math jargon, but hopefully you get the point.  In one of the most brilliant pieces of social science ever written, Arrow showed that no mathematical decision rule can possibly satisfy all five conditions.  If democracy depends on meeting all five conditions, then democracy is a mathematical impossibility.

The exception is if there are two and only two parties.  Add third parties, or more complex choices, and everything breaks down.

You can see why this bothers people.

People have been whining about the impossibility theorem for decades.  But they can't find a hole in the proof.  Yes, it's a proof.  An actual, mathematical proof.

Arrow was a provocateur.  He won a Nobel for it.  That Breitbart troll and his ilk?  I'll quote Mike Cooley from "Cottonseed."

Just loud-mouthed punks to me, I've scraped meaner off my shoe.

Ken Arrow wouldn't even bother to notice him.  Why have we?

Fuck it.  Here's Cooley.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Ted Nugent and Kid Rock as Senate candidates?!


What does political science have to say about this?  Ironically, the answer comes from the guy who predicted the nomination of Donald J. Trump in 2016 by the Republican Party before anyone else:  Jonathan Krasno.  Not only did Krasno see Trump coming before any other political scientist, a while back, he wrote a great book about Senate elections called Challengers, Competition and Reelection: Comparing Senate and House Elections.

House elections are, academically speaking, the territory of Gary C. Jacobson, and he pretty much describes them as contests of experience.  The more experienced candidate wins.  Senate races are a little more complex, says Krasno, and part of it is the variation in the challengers they draw, necessitating a more nuanced measure than the simple, dichotomous, Have You Ever Been Experienced? thing that Jacobson uses to such effect for House elections.  (See what I did there?  With the guitar thing?)

Krasno says that Senate elections require putting candidates on a multipoint, multidimensional scale, and his system allows points for fame beyond political experience.  If, as Jacobson says, experience matters because it provides name recognition, then a candidate who has name recognition for other reasons can compensate for lack of experience, in some circumstances.  Krasno also allows for more amorphous characteristics to affect candidate scores throughout his writings.

What about hack musicians?  (C'mon.  You had to know they weren't my thing, and frankly, I don't even know what Kid Rock sounds like).  Well, they're famous.  Nugent has been politically active for a long time, which actually could give him a pretty decent score in Krasno's weird-ass system, although not Jacobson's.

One should not give extra weight to that assessment merely because Krasno called the Republican nomination contest correctly.  Doing that is equivalent to handing darts to a set of chimps, letting them throw those darts at a wall covered with stock names to pick stocks, and making the chimp whose darts picked the best-performing stocks your broker.

However, Krasno was applying a system of reasoning.  He was applying a model consistently.  It worked, even if his model wasn't really intended to be about presidential politics.  Maybe we should all take his 1997 book a little more seriously.  His method of scale construction may have had too much arbitrariness for people like me, but the method works.

It is hard to argue with results.

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

Who knew I'd get to use Vasen in this series?  Apparently Sweden is now in the news.  For those interested, my favorite recorded version of this track is from their Live in Japan album.

Monday, February 20, 2017

"Fake news" and the fluidity of language, which I always hate

If you are reading this, there is a reasonably high likelihood that you are a student, and at some point, I have hassled you about proper grammar when using the following words:  media and data.  Those words are the plural forms of, respectively:  medium and datum.  Now, conjugate the verb, "to be."

Proper grammar:  The media are Donald Trump's enemies because Donald Trump is a pathological liar.

Improper grammar:  The media is Donald Trump's enemy because Donald Trump is a pathological liar.

There are basically two schools of thought on the use of language.  One school says that we should let it change over time in accordance with common usage.  I say that members of that school should be flogged.  Language only works with rules.

Great book:  Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  It is a reference to a mis-typed sign on a panda enclosure in a zoo.  Did you catch the extra comma, which changes the meaning?  Instead of eating plant material, a panda walks into a room, eats, shoots a gun, and walks out.  (How it does so without a normal thumb is another matter...)  Language requires rules.  Now, I love jazz.  You may have noticed.  Jazz breaks rules, but what happens when you take away all of the rules?  You get "free jazz."  Cecil Taylor.  Pure noise.  Garbage.  Even in jazz, rules provide structure, and without minimal structure, you are just a naked emperor, banging away pointlessly on a piano, pretending to create art, like the Jackson Pollack of sound.

Language requires rules.  Some rules can be broken because breaking them does not create an "eats, shoots & leaves" problem.  I break grammatical rules on a regular basis here.  I use sentence fragments.  I use "ain't."  I use "y'all."  What I don't do is change definitions.  Why am I so hung up on the plural aspect of "media?"  Aside from the arthropod in my gastrointestinal track?  It is a substantive point.  The fact that there are multiple organizations within "the media" makes generalizing about them substantively incorrect.  It is a point that we must always remember.  "Data" refers to a plural form because it (the word) is fundamentally about many observations.  That's the key aspect of the word.  These are intrinsic points.  Meaning matters.

And this brings me to "fake news."  (See how I broke a grammatical rule there without it mattering?)  The term has a meaning.  It refers to a made-up news story that didn't happen, sensationalized.  Pizzagate was a "fake news" story.  There was no child sex trafficking operation running out of a pizza parlor, much less one connected to Hillary Clinton.  The Obama birth certificate thing was "fake news."

Trump, though, latched onto the term after Flynn's even dumber kid had to be kicked off the Trump transition team because he was a pizzagate-truther.  Trump has taken to calling any news story he doesn't like "fake news," and so have all of his surrogates.

Now, one can imagine the following definition of "fake news," which actually fits their usage:  a news story which is either biased in its telling, or over-emphasized.  If words are defined by their usage, then Trump and his surrogates are redefining "fake news" in that manner, and everybody else is helpless to stop it because that's how language works, fluid as it is.

And that is the same argument behind the claim that "media" is now a singular noun because people use it that way.

To Donald Trump, his surrogates, and those who insist on treating media, data, and other similar words as though they are singular rather than plural:  STOP FUCKING WITH MY LANGUAGE!

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Obama versus Trump as Presidents

When Barack Obama ran for President in 2008, he was feted as the greatest orator in the history of the multiverse.  Then he was sworn in, and he stopped giving speeches.  Well, he didn't stop, but he slowed considerably.  Observers obsessed with the Reagan model of the presidency were puzzled.  If Obama won because he was the greatest giver of orals since Monica Lewinsky, why not keep it up, so to speak?  (See, this is why I just do my own blog).

The short answer is this:  it doesn't matter all that much.  Two references:  Samuel Kernell's Going Public, and George Edwards' On Deaf Ears.  Kernell argued that in the absence of good, old-fashioned, smoke-filled back rooms in which Nast-ian cartoon characters cut deals, the only way to do anything is to sway public opinion with high-fallutin' oratory, like Saint Ronald Reagan, peace and blessings be upon him.  That way, Congress has no choice but to go along if they value their reelections.

Edwards says, "yeah, good luck with that."

Obama didn't really try to approach his Presidency the Kernell way.  After he was inaugurated, he didn't really barnstorm the country, giving speeches in his legislative opponents' districts to force them to do what he wanted.  He gave some speeches, but mostly, he did what presidents do.

Between the latest rally and news conference, the current storyline is that Trump has returned to the campaign trail.  It seems premature to me to write that story, but I'd guess Trump does a lot of things prematurely, so it may not be inappropriate.  Of course, if Kasich was offered the VP slot with the promise that he could handle both domestic and foreign policy while Trump did, um, something (remember that one?), it's not inconceivable that Trump just has no interest in anything other than campaigning anyway.

Of course, it is worth remembering that Obama's first two years were legislatively productive because he had a Democratic Congress.  His final six years saw basically nothing happen because he had a Republican Congress.  What lessons should Trump draw from this?

It doesn't matter.  It's not like the guy reads.

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

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Trump and fictional spycraft

As I continue to think through the once unthinkable-- whether or not our President is influenced by a foreign power-- I find myself thinking in terms of my only connection to this type of thing.  Fiction.  Right now, The Americans.  Currently, The Expanse is the only show worth watching, but soon, The Americans will return.  If you don't know, it is set in the 1980s, about a pair of KGB agents operating in Washington, DC.

Right now, I find myself thinking about the character of Charles Duluth.  Charles is a conservative journalist who is an ex-communist.  Or, rather, that's his story.  He is actually still a communist, and his conversion story gives him access to a lot of powerful people, which means he can feed information back to the KGB, through Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings, deep-cover KGB agents who appear to be travel agents living in Falls Church, Virginia with no political opinions or activities whatsoever.

Charles works, both as a character and a concept, because nobody suspects the right-wing journalist of actually being a KGB agent.  The loud Marxist?  That's the guy you worry about.  The Straussian?  The Rand-ian objectivist?  Nope.  Nothing to worry about there.

In Season 3, when a fake defector named Zinaida shows up and Stan Beeman is suspicious of her, people kind of think that Stan is nuts until he catches her.

The Americans is a great show about smart people.  Smart spies and smart traitors aren't obvious about their disloyalties.

Which brings us back to Donald Trump and his relationship with Putin.  Hypothetical:  Putin has blackmail material on a president.  Should the president heap constant, fawning praise on Putin and give Putin everything he wants, or act like an adversary and then do a Nixon/China type thing on policy to allay suspicion?

Option 2 sounds smarter to me.  Trump heaps constant, fawning praise on Putin.  So, is Trump just personally infatuated with Putin, under the influence and too stupid to play it cool, or both?  They aren't mutually exclusive, and that's the problem.

If we could assume that Trump had a brain, we could take his praise of Putin as evidence against the blackmail hypothesis.  If it were a simple case of Trump being compromised, and he were smart, he would try to hide it.  The fact that Trump is not smart, though, and his general admiration for other dictators, like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un, means we still don't know what is going on.  He could be compromised, and too stupid to hide it the way Charles Duluth did.  He could just have a thing for Putin.  Both could be true.  Reasoning out the motives of a stupid person is very difficult.

I keep making allusions to fiction, but as I also keep writing, reality is often more like bad fiction than good fiction.  The Americans is a great show, in part because most of the characters, even Charles (most of the time), are smart.  To paraphrase George Carlin, though, think of how stupid the median person is.  Now, remember that, by definition, 50% of the population is dumber than that person.

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

Friday, February 17, 2017

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

I'm going to cheat and call this jazz because it was on the ECM label, which put out a lot of non-jazz, so admittedly, that's a lousy reason.  Steve Tibbetts is really just his own genre, but back when record stores were a thing, I dug his albums out of the jazz section.  This is some weird shit.  Not as weird as our politics, but pretty weird.

What we learned about Trump and Putin from yesterday's press conference

Yes!  We learned something!

I have been pretty skeptical that we can learn anything from these kinds of circuses, given that Trump is... less than forthcoming, but he can let things slip.  In yesterday's post, I posed three cases about what might be going on with Trump and Putin.  Either Trump is being blackmailed, he is all bluster, or he is just personally infatuated with Putin.  Cases 1 and 3 are difficult, but not impossible to distinguish from each other, while Case 2 would be distinguishable if we see a change in behavior towards Russia.

And yesterday, Trump said this:

"Because, look, it'd be much easier for me to be tough on Russia, but then we're not going to make a deal."

Did'ya catch that?  Yes, he's still a simpleton, unable to speak of anything other than toughness and deals, and unable to explain what either of them actually are, but there is something going on here.  Trump understands that his continued unwillingness to confront Russia makes him look like Putin's pawn, and hence the worst thing a person can be, in Trump's view:  weak.  Hence the "easier" part.  Trump has at least some impulse to confront Putin in order to not look weak.  He doesn't want to look like Putin's lapdog, and he understands that, right now, he does.

That desire to resist... it almost suggests Case 1 rather than Case 3 from yesterday's post, doesn't it?  If Trump just cared about toughness and the appearance of toughness, we'd be in Case 2, and he'd flip.  The point of what he said yesterday is that he won't flip, and he is trying to turn that around, and pretend that he is actually being tough by continuing to be Putin's rentboy.

Trump basically indicated that he won't flip on Putin, but he understands that he looks incredibly weak in his refusal to do so.  He therefore wants to flip, and he is trying to pretend that he is showing strength by not doing so.  If he wants to flip but can't, that kind of vaguely does suggest blackmail.

How definitive is this?  Not at all.  Still, we got a tiny peak inside Trump's head.  He knows how weak he looks.  And he hates it.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Can Trump continue to cozy up to Putin?

This is a tough one.  As more information continues to come out about the extent of the links between Trump, his people, and Russia, Trump is in a bind.  He wants to lift sanctions on Russia.  Can he?  It depends.  Let's go through the possibilities.

Case 1)  Trump really is being blackmailed.

Yes, we have to consider this.  If Putin really does control Trump, then nothing that gets leaked to the press matters.  No matter how bad Trump looks, he still has to do Putin's bidding.  Trump will hate it because it will show how weak he is, but he's just fucked.

Case 2)  Trump is all bluster

If Trump is nothing but a pompous windbag impressed with his own self-importance, then he flips on Russia and starts getting confrontational.  He needs to show how big his... hands are, and that means demonstrating that he isn't Putin's puppet.  That means flipping.  Since Trump has no real commitment to any policies, it won't matter to him if he is inconsistent.  He recently made a few statements about Crimea that seemed to indicate some possible movement in this direction, but we'll see if this gets backed up.

Case 3)  Trump is just in love with Putin

The complication is that Trump makes a lot of statements indicating sincere, deeply felt, sexual attraction to Vlady.  Trump loves nothing more than an authoritarian leader who understands the Conan rule.

The problem here is that if Trump is just infatuated with Vlady the Barbarian, then nothing changes.  Even if his continued toadying to Putin makes him look like he is being controlled, he'll still do it because he can't take his eyes off of those pecks.

You begin to see the problem, then.  Distinguishing between Case 1 and Case 3 is difficult.  Trump's behavior, in either case, would be the same.

A while back, I wrote that even if Putin had blackmail material, it probably wouldn't matter.  Everything about Trump indicates that Case 3 is probably true, even if Case 1 is also true.  They aren't mutually exclusive.

The real question is whether or not we see a change in behavior indicating Case 2.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Republican Party and weathering the storm

And the news keeps coming.  The intelligence agencies have released information that the communications between Trump campaign staff and Russia were more extensive than normal, including Flynn and Manafort.  Shocker.  While House Republicans like Jason Chaffetz are committed to blocking any investigation, Senate Republicans-- and not just McCain and Graham-- actually want to go through with a real investigation.  Roy Blunt is on board with a serious investigation.

How bad is this for Trump, and can the GOP weather the storm?  Bet on yes because of the stability of the two-party system, but, uh...  uh.... uh...

Let's think of this in the context of Watergate.  The "Watergate" of all scandals ending in "-gate."

Let's start, though, with what we know about what's happening today.  Russia hacked the DNC's emails in an attempt to help Trump get elected, while Trump was suggesting that he wouldn't necessarily defend our NATO allies if Russia attacked them.  He also urged Russia to engage in more espionage on his behalf.  After winning, the outgoing President imposed light sanctions on Russia for their actions.  Trump's campaign flunky and soon-to-be-National Security Advisor contacted a Russian envoy, on a monitored line (because Flynn, like Trump, is a fucking moron) to tell them not to respond because Trump would go easier on them, thereby engaging in private diplomacy in violation of the Logan Act, undercutting US foreign policy.  Putin responded by... doing nothing.  Trump praised Putin, like he always does.

The DoJ informed Trump that Flynn pulled this shit, and could be open to Russian blackmail.  This contradicts what Pence had said when he publicly went to bat for Flynn.  Trump did what with this information?  Nothing.  Until the other day's WaPo story came out, forcing his hand.  And all of this was happening while the Trump campaign was in constant contact with Russia before the election took place.

This is what we know now.  Suppose everything in the dossier is bullshit.  Or some other fluid.  But add the fact that the dossier exists.

Watergate cost the Republicans a bunch of seats in Congress in 1974.  They then lost in 1976.  Strategically, Republicans are in a bind right now.  The impulse to circle the wagons around the President to prevent Watergate-or-worse losses is understandable.  If every Republican declares the attacks on the Trump administration to be merely partisan, then it becomes difficult for anyone but the most highly informed voters to tell what is really true, and informed voters are generally partisans anyway.

The danger, though, is that we still don't know exactly where this goes.  Social science is about analysis of patterns.  We are so far outside of historical precedent here that social science is of minimal value right now.  This doesn't even read like Watergate.  It reads like a bad spy novel.  A really bad one.  The kind with characters who are too stupid to live.

Bad writers are usually predictable.  Not this time.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What's up with stocks these days?

I don't really have anything to say about Michael Flynn, but I've been thinking for a while that I might start addressing the stock issue.

On election night, as it started to dawn on us that, yes, Trump was going to win, the stock futures tanked.  Investors were panicking because, well, Trump is an idiotic wack-job, and giving the most powerful job in the world to such a person destabilizes things.  Investors don't tend to like that.  So, on election night, watching the stock futures tank made sense.

Anyone check the markets lately?  They keep hitting all-time highs.  What's going on?

Let's be blunt about the mathematically defensible part.  Tax cuts.  With unified Republican control of government, we will soon see a bunch of tax cuts, probably on the corporate side.  Corporate tax cuts improve the bottom line of publicly traded companies, improving their earnings per share (investor jargon).  Stock prices need to adjust.  Whether Republican policies are good for the rest of the economy is a separate and less relevant matter from the perspective of stock prices, unless they are so bad that they overwhelm the positive direct effects of the tax cuts.  Stock prices are supposed to reflect valuation, and if corporate tax cuts are coming soon, then stock prices need to go up in anticipation of the improvement in profitability.  Stocks are a segment of the economy.  Even if no other segments are helped, that segment will be helped.

As I read through the business news stories, though, it is amazing how convinced many business commentators are that we will see "tax reform" rather than just a bunch of tax cuts.

What do they mean?  A simplification of the tax code.  The tax code is insanely complicated, and it gets more complicated every year.  Each year, there are more tiny carve-outs that benefit one tiny group.  What if we just got rid of those tiny carve-outs, and had a simple tax code at a lower rate for everyone?  Nice dream, right?

The last time we did anything even remotely like that was 1986.  Why?  Everyone with one of those tiny benefits fights hard to preserve them.

In other words, tax reform may be harder than healthcare reform.  We've done the latter more recently.  Anyone pinning their hopes and dreams on the former?  Um, I don't see it, and if that's why stocks are going up?  Well...

I have more to say on this, but events have a way of getting in the way, so we'll see.

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

A Swedish bassist goes to Syria and makes a great live album with local musicians.  Perfect for the current series.  Yeah, Syria.

Monday, February 13, 2017

What's with all these missile tests?

So, I guess you may have noticed that North Korea did a missile test.  Iran, now North Korea.  As countless Jerry Seinfeld imitators would say, what's the deal?

It isn't necessarily Schelling, escalating conflict by taking us down his metaphorical slope towards inevitable destruction.  Maybe, but at this point, there is a far less dangerous explanation.  Here's the basic problem in game theory.  Not everything is a perfect information game.

Consider the game of "chicken."  We're going to keep coming back to this one.  Two people drive towards each other.  If someone swerves, that driver is a chicken.  He loses.  If nobody swerves, um, oops!  Crash.  If the cars are going fast enough, both drivers die.  If both drivers swerve, they're both chickens.  At least they don't both die.  How do they each rank the various outcomes?

(a) death < swerving alone < both swerve < winning

Figuring out a decision requires trying to figure out what the other player will do.  The problem is that not all players are the same type, and you may not know what type of player you are facing.  There may be some player types who are less concerned with dying.  Would you play this stupid, adolescent game?!  There may be some whose egos are so fucking massive, or at least fragile [cough, cough, Trump] that they might actually rather die than be seen as a loser.  (Then again, he was a draft-dodger, so...).  In that case, there may be some players with the following preference ordering:

(b) swerving alone < death < both swerve < winning

If you don't know whether you are facing someone with ranking (a) or ranking (b), you've got a real problem.  How do you deal with that?  You might want to play some low-stakes rounds to figure it out.  You know, where the result of both sides not swerving isn't dying.

A new president was just inaugurated.  Other leaders need to feel him up.  Out.  I mean, feel him out.  Trump is an unknown quantity, as new presidents generally are.  He is particularly unknown, though, making these kinds of gestures both important and to be expected.

What will he do in response?  I have no idea.  The fact that we are seeing this, though, is basic game theory.

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

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Trump, "the Goldwater Rule," and presidential mental health

Since I've been revisiting Schelling and the "Political science and craziness" series, it might be a good idea to address this one.  For those who aren't familiar with the jargon, "the Goldwater Rule" is a reference to the ethical standard that psychiatric professionals aren't supposed to diagnose public officials and candidates without examining them personally.  It dates, obviously, to Barry Goldwater, and to fears that he might, um, blow up the planet with nuclear weapons because he might have been coo-coo for cocoa puffs.



We're back.  The problem is that diagnosing mental health problems requires more than watching someone on tv, hence "the Goldwater Rule."

Now that Trump has managed to get elected President despite worries that he is far crazier than Goldwater, if you read around, you will see suggestions that candidates submit to mental health screenings the same way they do for physical health screenings to get around the problem of the Goldwater Rule.

If you have already guessed that I'm going to call bullshit on this, then congratulations!

The obvious point is that you shouldn't expect a mental health screening to produce anything other than this:

But it's worse than that.  You think the psychological and psychiatric professionals of the world aren't deeply influenced by the political and social norms of their era?

Try this.  If you are reading a political science blog, there is a pretty high likelihood that you think that being gay is not a mental illness.  Until pretty recently, in historical terms, being gay was considered a form of mental illness.  So, what, mental health professionals used to be influenced by political and social norms, but thank the flying spaghetti monster that all that nonsense is behind us and everything is pure, objective science now?!  If people can have their psychological and psychiatric assessments influenced by political and social norms, then such influences do and will occur, now and forever because that's how cognitive psychology works.  (That's the part of psychology I actually know).

Which kinds of mental health assessments are influenced by political and social norms of the day right now?  That's not the right question for me or this post.  The point is that once you accept the premise that mental health assessments can be and frequently are influenced by political and social norms, formalizing assessments of candidates as a process of qualification the way the ABA evaluates judicial nominees looks... kind of sketchy.

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

I'm cheating again, and we're going with some old-time, pre-bluegrass Appalachian music.  I believe, though, that this is the 1964 recording, so technically, this isn't pre-bluegrass, but the style predates bluegrass.  Obviously, I could go on.  Anyone want a lecture on frailing versus clawhammer and whether or not they should be considered the same thing?  Cuz' I got opinions on that.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Trump comes to his senses, and by doing so, undercuts his greatest strength as President

Last August, I did a series called "Political science and craziness," about what would happen if someone like Trump were president, leaning heavily on the work of, who else?  Thomas Schelling.  One of the critical points I made throughout that series is that Trump actually had one real advantage over other types of political figures:  the ability to make a threat credible when it wouldn't otherwise have been.

Like the Hungarians and Keyser Soze, it's all about having the will to do the thing nobody else will do.  Trump's advantage in the international arena is being perceived as, well, being willing to do stuff nobody else will do.  A threat that sounds implausible coming from Merkel might sound more plausible coming from Trump because, well, he's fucking nuts.  See the "Political science and craziness" series.  That's an advantage.  It could allow Trump to extract concessions that no one else could extract, as long as he is smart enough to recognize the difference between what can and cannot be extracted, and that was the rub.  (Probably the wrong word to use when discussing Trump).  That was also what got the Hungarians killed by Keyser Soze.

One of Trump's first actions after the election was to take Taiwan's side against China.  China didn't like that.  Trump has now backed away from that.  Why?  Well, he recognized it wouldn't get him anywhere, and he wasn't willing to fight the fight.  It was a stupid fight to pick in the first place, strategically.  Morally?  Fuck the Chinese government.  Strategically, though?  That was never going to work.  A strange, last-minute display of non-stupidity.

Yet, it means he has now backed down, and here's the thing about backing down.  Once you do it, visibly, it makes your threats less credible.  It undercuts Trump's only personal advantage as President.  He's a moron.  Nobody trusts him, which is the natural consequence of being a pathological liar.  The credibility of his threats is all he has, and he just threw a bunch of that away immediately.  "Bigly."

How does he get it back?  Follow through on another threat.  "Bigly."  Soon.

I'm kind of curious what he'll do, but he has to know he needs to carry out a threat.

Links to "Political Science and Craziness"

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

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

I don't know if this counts as country or not, but I'm using it today.  Jimmy used to be in a weird, folk-country-rock group called Blood Oranges.  Nobody remembers them, except me.

Friday, February 10, 2017

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

Mingus again.  I don't always use Mingus.

What isn't happening in the first 100 days

OK, we really shouldn't focus on "the first 100 days" of a presidency.  It is a completely arbitrary marker.  We happen to use a base-10 number system, and 100 is a nice wound number (eh, Biggus?).  Still, we are focusing on the immigration ban and the 9th Circuit, while gawking at Trump's war of words with his own Supreme Court nominee, Kellyanne Conway going directly from making up the "Bowling Green Massacre" to breaking ethics rules by promoting Trump's daughter's clothing line, Trump's ongoing SNL obsession, and similar nonsense.

What aren't we talking about?

Serious legislation.  Congressional Republicans are paralyzed over healthcare, tax reform (they'll pass tax cuts, but have no clue what to do about the overall structure of the tax code) and other major policy goals.

Reference time!  Richard Fenno's Learning to Govern.  After four decades out of the majority, Republicans finally took over the House of Representatives in the 1994 election.  And nobody had a clue what they were doing, least of all Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was often charitably described as a stupid person's impression of a smart person.  A big part of it was lack of experience.  Nobody there had ever really governed.  It had been four decades since the Republicans had a majority!

Of course, Republicans had unified control of government as recently as 2006, right before the midterm that handed control of Congress to Democrats.  There are people around who remember.  Trump, of course, is fucking moron who had to pause a call with Putin to ask his aides what the START treaty was, so looking to him for guidance on how to govern is a fool's errand.  Ryan?  He was a young'un when Democrats took over in 2006.  He was first elected in 1998.  Most of his leadership experience has been as an opposition leader.  The only one with any real governing experience at the top of the party?  McConnell.  And there are a hell of a lot of young'uns who just don't have a clue how things work.  Why?  They have never had to govern.

Chaos.  And no real policymaking.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The mess in the Senate: When winning isn't enough

The blow-up in the Senate over Elizabeth Warren and the Coretta Scott King letter shows an interesting point that many of my colleagues who do "rational choice theory" just don't get.  It isn't just about outcomes.

Game theorists approach the study of politics (or, more commonly, economics) by writing out 1) everybody's "utility functions," which tell you how happy everybody would be with any given outcome, then 2) what everyone's possible choices are at any given decision point, and then 3) they deduce what everyone will do based on the assumption that everyone wants to maximize their own utility.

And then we get stuff like what just happened in the Senate over the Sessions nomination.  Sessions was going to be confirmed.  Republicans had the votes.  They even had Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia.  It was a done deal.  Democrats wanted to make symbolic statements against him, but they didn't have the votes to defeat him.  Fine.  What does game theory say about this?  It says there is no game.

Thank you, Bill.  Game over.  Republicans won.  But that wasn't enough.  The rules against impugning another senator are odd and selectively enforced.  McConnell chose a strange time to enforce them, and cut Warren off.  Strategically, what was the value of enforcing them in this case?  Nothing.

I question the self-congratulatory liberal nonsense that this backfires for Republicans.  Any moment now, the 9th Circuit will rule on the entry ban, we will soon have Supreme Court hearings on Gorsuch, and Trump is due to distract everyone with something inflammatory in about three seconds, which takes the spotlight off of this little dustup even if it does make McConnell look petty.  This shit doesn't matter.  At all.  It simply demonstrates a basic point:  people acting on emotion rather than recognizing their strategic situation.

McConnell had won.  Warren wanted to read a letter?  So fucking what?  A rational actor would have let her.  An emotional one didn't.

See what I did there on gender?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Donald Trump and philosophies on the derivation of rights

When Trump's people filed their paperwork defending the entry ban on people from seven Muslim countries (Muslim redlining, as I prefer to call it), the line that really stuck out at me was this one:

"An alien seeking initial admission to the United States requests a privilege and has no constitutional rights regarding his application."

Interesting, right?

Who has what right, and when?  I'm not going to answer that fuckin' question.  That's for lawyers, and fuck lawyers.  Better yet, don't fuck lawyers.  That just risks creating more lawyers.  Instead, let's do some political philosophy.  Remember this one?

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..."

Don't whine about the "men" thing.  Focus on the "Creator" thing.  This is a conception of rights based on "natural law."  Rights are given by that "Creator"-dude, to everyone (or at least to all men), so they can't be taken away.  That conception of rights doesn't square with the idea that they are limited to citizens.  They aren't a special privilege for an aristocratic class.  They are for everyone because "Creator"-dude says so.  That's the conception of rights based on natural law, which was how the framers saw things (or at least Thomas Jefferson and a few others).

Of course, you don't need "Creator"-dude to have a similarly expansive conception of rights.  Ayn Rand was a godless heathen, and she had a different view of rights.  Rand was the founder of "objectivism," which begins precisely with the premise that there is no "Creator"-dude.  Therefore there is nobody imposing "Creator"-dude's arbitrary rules.  You are on your own, so there is only individual achievement.  Just don't impose on anyone else.  Pure libertarianism.  That principle, though, is a universal one, so like natural law, it doesn't exist as a special birthright for people who happen to be born on the right patch of dirt or to the right parents.  Oh, and Ayn Rand was a refugee from a country with whom we were... not friendly.

There are more perspectives, obviously, but I'm just throwing these out there because a) they are perspectives to which conservatives should be friendly, and b) they are diametrically opposed in terms of their religious bases.  Lawyers can argue about this shit, but lawyers can tie themselves into knots about whether or not 2+2 is really 4 because lawyers are a bunch of fuckin' jagoffs.  Seriously, kids, don't go to law school.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Presidential authority and Miles' law

If you haven't read it yet, you really need to read John Yoo's NYT editorial on how Trump is going way too far on executive authority.  The thing you should have in mind as you read it?  Miles' law:  where you stand depends on where you sit.

It is an old aphorism that means, roughly, that your opinion on matters of power and procedure depends on your position within the political system.

It is important to remember who John Yoo is and was.  When George W. Bush decided he wanted to torture terror suspects, he needed some legal papers to cover his ass.  He turned to John Yoo to write those legal papers since torture is actually illegal.  Yoo's basic position is an extreme version of the theory called the "unitary executive."  All executive power is vested in the president.  The phrase sounds innocuous, but it isn't.  It means that nobody in the executive branch has any independent authority.  In Yoo's mind, that means that on matters of national security, the president can make unilateral decisions to do whatever he wants unbound by any other constraints.  National security gives the president the ability to do damned near anything, in Yoo's conception.

Keep that in mind as you read through the New York Times editorial in which John Yoo says that Trump is going way too fucking far as president and has no conception of the limits placed on the power of the president by the Constitution.  Yoo focuses his harshest attacks on Trump's belief that he can unilaterally withdraw from NAFTA and impose tariffs, which don't invoke Yoo's principles of national security and the unitary executive, but the point is that when you go too far for John Yoo...

I'm a math person, so let's put this in math terms.  Put this on a line, representing the tension between Congress and the President.  On the left, power is vested more in Congress' hands.  On the right, the President's.

John Yoo is way to the fucking right on that spectrum.

And he says that Trump is scaring him by being way to the right of him.

The Constitution is a ridiculously vague document, and I won't get into parsing this stuff.  I just want to put this in mathematical context.

Now, contrast Yoo's reaction to congressional Republicans' reactions.  Under Obama, the cry was executive over-reach in response to everything.  Why?  That brings us back to Miles' law.  John Yoo, unlike nearly any politician, has an actual, principled stance on executive power.  It is that the president has precisely a metric fuck-ton of it.  No more, no less.  Politicians?  It depends on who is in office.  If it is their own party?  Let him have as much power as he wants.

Miles' law in action.  Just remember, though, that John Yoo, whatever you think of him and his opinions on torture, the guy has actual principles on the concept of executive power.  Do you?  Probably not.

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

Aziza Brahim is an amazing singer.  She lives in Spain, but she is of Sahrawi origin.  They are a Saharan group, and Brahim was born in a refugee camp in... Algeria.  This is another that would have been in my "best of 2016" series if it weren't structured around the "If you don't love __, you hate America" thing.  Yes, I really do have all of this stuff in my collection.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Mitch McConnell has ALREADY used the "nuclear option"

In case you missed it, Mitch McConnell made an announcement on one of those Sunday talk shows that you shouldn't rot your brain watching.  Seriously, hardcore drugs are healthier for you.  In reference to the possibility of using the "nuclear option" to eliminate the filibuster and take away the Democrats' ability to block Gorsuch's confirmation to the Supreme Court, McConnell said this:

"I would say that is up to our Democratic friends."

Translation:  If Democrats filibuster, he goes nuclear to confirm Gorsuch.  If they don't, he confirms Gorsuch.  Translation:  Democrats cannot, under any circumstances, filibuster.  Translation:  the filibuster is gone.  Period.  If it cannot be used, it doesn't exist.  Translation:  he has already eliminated it.

McConnell has already pressed the button.  Everything else is just smoke and mirrors.  Smoke, that is, coming from the smoldering ruins of what used to be political norms.

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

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Trump, Iran and the politics of threats

Time for even more references to Thomas Schelling.  Do you want to understand what is going on with Trump and Iran?  Read The Strategy of Conflict already.  Don't I reference it enough?

Schelling wanted to explain nuclear deterrence.  Imagine two people, bound together on the edge of a cliff.  One threatens the other:  I'll jump if you don't do as I say!  Makes no sense, does it?  They both die if either jumps.  On the other hand, imagine a gently sloping hillside that gets steeper.  Threatening to take a single step down the slope doesn't guarantee death.  It just incrementally increases the odds that they slip.  Incrementalism.  Inserting randomness into the process.  These are key elements to Schelling's argument about how deterrence can work.  The gradual escalation of conflict to the point that someone panics, slips up, and simple human error throws the conflict out of control.  The threat to take such a step is credible.  The problem occurs when that credible threat is carried out precisely because it is credible.

We are seeing gradual escalation with Iran right now.  Trump is making threats.  Iran is ignoring them, and continuing to conduct missile tests.  As Schelling would say, each side is taking incremental steps down a hillside that gets ever-steeper.

Worst-case scenarios here are pretty bad.  And that's before we talk about the Trump factor.

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

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"Diplomacy," Trump-style

So apparently shouting matches with our allies, like Australia, are a thing now.  Also, Iran is "on notice," and Stephen Colbert may file copyright infringement claims.

Iran is... not impressed.  Their missile tests will continue, so they say.

Here's the thing about negotiation.  There are basically two ways to do it:  carrot and stick.  If we want something from another country, we either have to offer them something in return, or make a credible threat.  Trump is offering other countries nothing in return for what he wants.  His whole schtick (yeah, that's going to get confusing) is that he is such a great negotiator that he can get better deals just because he is Trump.  Gimme, gimme, gimme.  Take the carrot off the table, and that leaves the stick schtick.  So, he threatens and throws temper tantrums.

What, then, can he do to back up his threats?  Is there any credible threat he can make to Australia?  Not much of one.  To Iran?  Well, that's where it gets tricky.  Economically, we don't have close ties to them anyway, so the sanctions that Trump imposed just aren't a big deal, in real terms.

Can Trump credibly threaten military action against Iran?  Right now, that "n" to "q" thing is probably in everyone's minds.  Iran isn't attacking anyone.  Unlike Iraq, we currently know they don't have stockpiles of unconventional weapons.  Add the historical context of Iraq, and the rest of the world would not be on our side if Trump decided to attack Iran for conducting missile tests, particularly if it looks like Iran is honoring the nuclear deal.

That doesn't mean Trump wouldn't do it.  Here's the problem.  Trump's "negotiation" style is all about making threats.  If you make a threat and don't back it up, your threats cease to be credible, and you can't use them anymore.  Sound familiar?  I've been using this point for a while, going back to...


Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  Have you read it yet?  I'll be revisiting last August's "Political Science and craziness" series if this stuff with Iran heats up to anything more than bluster, but of course, we also have Trump going up against the courts on his executive orders, the nonexistent Bowling Green Massacre, and too much other craziness to cover.

When did the real world get crazier than The Onion?

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

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


Universities and politics in the Trump era

Two observations today.  You may not like 'em.

First, a bunch of university muckety-mucks here at Case Western Reserve University have released a statement condemning Trump's Muslim redlining.  Yeah, I'm sticking with that as the proper terminology.

I am reminded of some fun times from grad school.  One of my advisors, Nelson Polsby, was a crotchety old bastard.  Translation: he was awesome.  During the George W. Bush administration and protests on the UC Berkeley campus, he made reference to protests of previous Republican presidents  like Reagan, and how he assuredly opened up the papers, wondering in terror what they must have thought of him in Berkeley, California.

Anyone who thinks that Trump gives a shit that the faculty and administration at CWRU condemn him, well, they don't get it.  Sherrod Brown already agrees, and Portman is only slightly less constipated on the matter than Trump.  By a factor of epsilon, which is the Greek letter we use in math to denote a value not equal to, but arbitrarily close to 0.  (Sorry, can't find it in the editor here).

So why do I bother with what I write?  I know a few things.  Not many, but a few.  Nelson Polsby and some others made me read a lot, and some of it stuck.  If a few students and other interested parties find something interesting here, then something is accomplished.  Also, it's a fun thing to do while I drink my morning coffee.  I have no delusions that anything more will happen.  So that statement?  Yeah.  I can hear Nelson's voice I my head.  Maybe I should get that checked out.

But that brings me to Berkeley, California and Milo Yiafuckoffeatshitanddie.  He had another speech shut down.  This time, at UC Berkeley.  In fact, I've dealt with this before, in my "welcome back to school" post.  Same basic points.  First, why are serious universities inviting a fundamentally unserious person to speak as though he has something useful to say?  He is a subject to study, not an educator.  Second....


If you believe in the concept of free speech...


I can't fucking believe I have to type this, but...


Trump isn't exactly right, but...


he's more right than the protesters who shut down the speech.

He is wrong about cutting off federal funding and all that shit, but remember.  The ACLU defended the neo-Nazis' right to march in Skokie, IL.  This ass-clown is nothing but a professional troll who feeds on your anger.

Don't feed the troll.  It is the most basic rule of the internet.  Once you become the enemy of the concept of free speech, you don't get to pretend that you are the one opposing fascism.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Redlining for Muslims

In Monday's post, I gave some odd legal references on Trump's entry ban, getting to Lemon v. Kurtzman via the "intelligent design" case from Dover, Pennsylvania.  Continuing in the odd legal analysis of the entry ban, here's some policy history.

Does anybody remember redlining?

Let's say you are a mortgage lender or a property owner, and a subhuman, racist piece of fucking shit.  But, let's say you are also smarter than Donald Trump, and not just going to turn away black people and get taken to court by the Department of Justice the way Trump did in 1973 because he just wouldn't rent to black people.

The smarter racists came up with more astute ways to get around civil rights laws.  That's where "redlining" comes in.  Let's say you are a mortgage lender who doesn't want to give a loan to African-Americans, but the law requires you not to discriminate on the basis of race.  How do you get around that?  Take a map of your city, and if the city is currently segregated by race for historical/economic reasons, draw actual, literal red lines around the neighborhoods where the black people live, and create a rule for your bank:  no loans to anyone who currently lives in any of those neighborhoods.

Since the rule doesn't rely explicitly on the race of the loan applicant, it can get by the scrutiny of many judges.  And it did.  Redlining didn't go the way of the dodo until the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act banned it.  Banks have still found ways to give people, um, differential treatment, but redlining became illegal.  Why?  Well, it was just fucking racist, and everyone knew it.  But, it had enough veneer to it that it passed legal muster until a law was passed banning it explicitly.

This is the short version, of course.  The full story is far more complicated, but you get the point.

On the campaign trail, Trump called for banning Muslims from entering the country.  Even his own eventual VP called that "offensive and unconstitutional."  So, by Rudy Giuliani's own account, he huddled his advisors together to come up with something that was effectively a Muslim ban, but that could pass constitutional muster because it wasn't, on its face, a Muslim ban.  So, pick some neighborhoods countries that are predominantly Muslim.  Nobody from those neighborhoods countries.

I wonder if they used red lines on the map during the meeting.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Follow-up on the possibility of court-packing

This morning's post speculated on the possibility of Democrats responding to McConnell's successful blockade of Scalia's seat by engaging in "court-packing" the next time they get a chance, by which I mean expanding the size of the Supreme Court from 9 to, say, 11 members so that a future Democratic president can appoint enough justices to outvote Gorsuch and nullify the effects of McConnell's gambit.  Remember, the Constitution doesn't specify the size of the Supreme Court.

Of course, there is another real possibility of court-packing that we need to consider.  What if the Court starts striking down Trump's executive orders?  Ginsberg, Breyer, Kagan and Sotomayor probably won't be predisposed towards Trump, and predicting Kennedy can be tricky.  Even predicting Roberts isn't always easy, lest we forget NFIB v. Sebelius, when Roberts saved Obamacare.

FDR responded to the Supreme Court by threatening court-packing when they started striking down parts of the New Deal, but FDR backed down from the plan.

Do you really think Trump would?  Do you think congressional Republicans would restrain him?

Don't rule anything out.

Gorsuch, the Democrats and the future of the Supreme Court

Neil Gorsuch will be confirmed to the Supreme Court, barring some strange new revelation.  A year ago, Mitch McConnell made a really unprecedented move by announcing that the Republicans would refuse to confirm any nominee Obama might make to replace Scalia, despite the fact that he had a year left in his term.  It would have been disastrous had Clinton won, but she didn't.

And the filibuster is already functionally gone.  Back in November, I did a brief series (links below) on the future of the filibuster, and the basic point is this:  it is an illusion.  The Republicans can end any filibuster they want, any time they want, with 50 votes in the Senate, plus Mike Pence.  In fact, they don't even need Mike Pence.  They can just do it with 51.

How badly do they want that Supreme Court seat?  Badly enough to blockade it for a year in defiance of all norms and precedent, knowing that it could blow up in their faces if Clinton won.  So:

Case 1:  Democrats filibuster

Republicans use the nuclear option to get rid of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, extending what Reid did a few years back.  Gorsuch is confirmed.  Given what McConnell did last year, there is no way they let the Dems filibuster any Trump nominees.  Ever.

Case 2:  Democrats don't filibuster

Gorsuch is confirmed.

In either case, Gorsuch is confirmed, so functionally, Democrats cannot filibuster.  That is why I say the filibuster is an illusion.

Which way does it play out?  Who cares?!  The end result is the same.

Where do we go from here?  Gorsuch will sit on the Supreme Court because Mitch McConnell blockaded a Supreme Court seat for a year to keep Obama from filling it, after years of treating him as an illegitimate president.  In 2016, Trump won with assistance from James Comey and Vladimir Putin, and filled that seat with Neil Gorsuch.  Every 5-4 ruling that Gorsuch tips will, to liberals, appear illegitimate.  Response?

Court-packing?  The next time Democrats get unified control, do they actually go through with what FDR backed away from doing and expand the Supreme Court to outvote Gorsuch?  Would it really be that much more extreme than what McConnell did?

All political norms are dead.  If I were advising the Democrats at this point, I would tell them to plan on the following:  try to take back the Senate in 2018 (difficult, but plausible), hoping for utter disaster over the next two years (more than plausible).  Then, block all Trump appointments to every office everywhere, expanding the McConnell approach.  Try to take the whole shebang in 2020 and go for court-packing.  If all norms are dead, there's nothing else.

Links to the November filibuster series:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V