Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Protests about Trump's taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Goal: stymie Trump's tax overhaul "plan" by connecting it to the tax returns and possible conflicts of interest covered up by not releasing them. This movement seems more likely to have success come after it, even if not strictly causally.

    1. I've seen that written as a goal. I see two issues with it. First, it seems like a rationalization. Demands for Trump to release his tax returns predate this idea by nearly two years at this point, so it seems like a shifting rationale for a demand that stays the same. Second, tax reform won't happen anyway. I demand that the sun rise tomorrow! Tomorrow the sun will rise. This comment has nothing to do with it. Tax reform is about compromise, and the Freedom Caucus objects to the concept of compromise. Take them out of the equation, eliminate the possibility of bipartisan legislation since Ryan working with Democrats will lead to his removal from the Speakership, and tax reform is dead. The protests have nothing to do with it.

    2. The Innauguration Day +1 protests were completely pointless as well from a goals perspective, but going out on the street communicated "something".

    3. "Something" is about right. It communicated "something" to observers, but that thing is similar to Trump's low approval ratings, the contested nature of the way he came into office with the assistance of Comey and Putin, etc. They were an effect, not a cause. As such, they were worth noting, just like Trump's low approval ratings are worth noting, but if you have to put the "something" in quote marks, that too communicates something.

    4. As a historian, i'm all about those quotation marks.

    5. Ah, but WHY are Trump's ratings low?

      Could it be that protests serve to remind fairly inattentive people about all the shit?

      Person: "I remember something about Trump's taxes, but didn't that Madcow woman show them or something? Or isn't it just required when he became president? I think that's in the Constitution somewhere....something about emulsion?"
      TV: "People protested in dozens of cities over President Trump's refusal to release his taxes. Experts say that the only way to discover if Trump is enriching himself while president is to look at his taxes."
      Person: "Huh. Guess Trump is just another rich asshole."
      Phone rings. Gallup on the other end. Another person disapproving, who might otherwise have crept up into approving or DK status.

    6. All it takes for Trump to keep his approval ratings low is for him to keep being a douchebag and to continue failing at everything presidential. If the economy takes off, little else matters, except maybe war. If the economy tanks, little else matters, except maybe war. And if nukes start flying, nothing else matters.

  2. Do you have an opinion on the upcoming Science March?

    Thinking in the framework you provided in your post, the March appears mostly costless for participants. Worse, it seems to lack a concrete goal beyond "conversation" and a vague defense of science. Though only anecdotally, among friends the March seems more like a way of virtue/partisan signaling despite the March's claim to non-partisanship.

    I am afraid that the March will have the opposite of the intended effect: conservatives will see the March as a protest against Trump and thus associate scientists with liberals. This might cause some conservatives to further distrust science and elites, precluding any expansion of "conversation."

    1. Unfortunately, I think it is even worse than you suspect. At the elite level (although not-so-much at the mass level), climate science is already so polarized in partisan terms that the march cannot help but to exacerbate the existing conflicts between the sciences and the Republican Party. I think things are already past the point of no return when Inhofe is the top Republican in the Senate on climate issues. This is a protest against Trump. Period. I don't think there is a point denying it. The President claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Let's not pretend that this march isn't related, and let's not pretend that this isn't already partisan. Cap and trade used to be a Republican position. The party moved, and is now simply in conflict with climate science.

    2. http://phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1942