Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Airport security: On laptops, pocket knives and risk assessment

The Department of Homeland Security will, apparently, not be banning laptops from all foreign flights, at least not yet.  Realistically, they probably will eventually, but they aren't doing it yet.  For once, airport security will not do the dumbest possible thing (again, they probably will later, at which point I will retract this statement, but I shall momentarily revel on a brief respite from idiocy).  I am pleasantly surprised, but a few comments are in order here about how we assess risk.  The laptop bomb threat is a bigger one than the threat of a pocket knife, yet laptops will continue to be permitted, and pocket knives will not.  This is, in technical terms, fucked up.  (Both should be allowed, and everyone should calm the fuck down and stop letting the terrorists win.)

Let's start with a basic reminder:  the TSA is so incompetent as to be completely and utterly worthless.  If there are bombs, weapons, etc. in your luggage, the TSA probably won't find them.  They might find a tube of toothpaste that is too large, and haul your ass off to an interrogation room for being a terrorist-dental hygienist, but a gun?  No, those ass-clowns won't find it.  As the saying goes, they can't find their asses with both hands and a flashlight, which adds special meaning to this scene from South Park...



Anyway, the TSA is worthless.  They can't find weapons, bombs, or anything else.  If there truly is anything dangerous, they won't find it.  That's kind of the point of the laptop bomb.  Put a bomb in a laptop, and the halfwit staring at the x-ray of your laptop won't notice anything askew.

As a more general point, whatever rules the DHS and the TSA create are merely inconveniences for the rest of us, unless they create a deterrent effect on terrorists, but that deterrent effect only works if the terrorists are unaware of the fact that the TSA is, as previously stated, worthless and incompetent.

Terrorists can read, so no such luck there.

That brings me back to the pocket knife/laptop distinction.  It is possible to disguise a bomb in a laptop, or so we are told.  Engineers are clever people.  (Just don't tell them that.)  A bomb on a plane might not be such a good thing.  Of course, a bomb on a train or a bus would be bad too, and taking down a plane with a laptop bomb isn't all that easy, from what I have read (although you should listen to engineers and demolitions experts on that, not me), but still, a laptop bomb on a plane is not a completely bullshit threat.  Whether or not it would be worse in the cargo hold, I'll defer to the engineers (but not DHS, or the TSA, who are, again, dipshits of the highest/lowest caliber).

A pocket knife on a plane, on the other hand, is a completely bullshit threat.

This is the point where, if you aren't thinking rationally, you remind me that hijackers brought down the World Trade Center towers and took out a chunk of the Pentagon with box cutters in 2001.  Here's the problem.  That can never work again.  The reason that worked in 2001 was that the passengers on three planes believed that by cooperating, they would live.  They thought it was an old-fashioned hijacking, where the terrorists were trying to divert the flight, not use the plane as a weapon.  As soon as the passengers on the fourth flight found out what was happening, they rushed the hijackers, and the plane crashed before making it to its destination.

Nobody has ever tried it since, and every time anyone has tried anything fishy since, like when Richard Reid tried to light his shoes on fire, they've been stopped by passengers.  Why?  Because hijacking a plane with a knife only works if passengers believe that by cooperating, they live.  People don't believe that anymore.

They stopped believing it on September 11, 2001, and they won't believe it again.  Combine that with the flight crew's attitude, the cockpit doors being locked, and no, you can't hijack a plane with a knife.  A knife on a plane is precisely as dangerous as a knife on a bus, subway car, etc.  And fuck you if you tell me I can't carry a pocket knife anymore.

And yet, DHS is waiting to do anything on the laptop issue, but they will keep telling me I can't take a pocket knife of flights.  Now, I could try to sneak knives through in my carry-on baggage.  TSA is, as I mentioned, incompetent, but the risk of losing one of my Chris Reeve knives is not one I am willing to take, much less the risk of losing a full custom knife.  I'll throw one of my cheaper pocket knives in a checked bag, because really, everyone should carry a pocket knife.  It's a basic tool.

There are multiple levels here, though.  What is the risk posed by the items in question, and what is the cost of the ban?

The cost of banning pocket knives is, realistically, not that high.  I know that I am kind of a weirdo about this.  I got my first pocket knife as a cub scout, and I have carried a knife every day I could since then.  Why?  As I said, it is a useful tool.  It is a stupid weapon (particularly a folding knife), as self-defense experts are better-equipped to explain, but it is a useful tool.  Still, the cost to me of either not having one when I travel, or checking a bag, is minimal, and I am capable of performing that calculation.

On the other hand, the cost to the business community of banning laptops would be tremendous.  People work on flights.  Make that impossible on Europe-US flights and you will have serious problems.

So, this is worth pointing out.  We are running higher (although really, still VERY low) risks for allowing laptops in the cabin because the costs of implementing a ban are higher, while maintaining a ban on pocket knives, even though the risks created by pocket knives are basically non-existent because the costs of the ban for the latter are small, but the latter ban gives simple-minded folk some peace of mind.

And of course, none of this matters because the TSA rarely succeeds in its job.  If you want to see what they do catch, though, you can get some good deals on cheap-o pocket knives and multi-tools by heading over to eBay and searching for "TSA confiscated."  Personally, I am pickier about what I carry, but really, there are some good deals to be had there for the budget-minded folk who want to take advantage of those who forgot to clean out their pockets before heading to the airport.  Remember, though, that the TSA failed to find 95% of the banned items planted in bags when they were being tested because they can't find their asses with both hands and a flashlight.  Personally, I think they need better flashlights.  Currently, I am recommending the Olight S1R for "EDC."

As a final note, I bet the terrorists are sitting around right now trying to figure out how to leak that they are planning on smuggling a suppository bomb onto a plane, just to make that South Park bit a reality.  And none of it would matter if people would calm the fuck down about terrorism because that's why they do it-- to get you to freak out.  You are more likely to die in a car crash, so stop texting.

Wednesday musical post: Memorial for Col. Bruce Hampton, retired

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I should have done a memorial post when Col. Bruce Hampton, retired, died a little while ago.  You probably haven't heard of him, but he mattered.  He was a musical weirdo who formed bands like The Aquarium Rescue Unit, which was the first major group for eventual Allman's bassist, Oteil Burbridge, along with guitarist Jimmy Herring, who has also played with not just the Allmans, but basically every improvisational rock group around.  Bruce was a wacky guy who was basically the vision guy.  He taught everyone around him to loosen up and look for different ways to play.  He wasn't much of an instrumentalist.  He wasn't a vocalist-extraordinaire.  He was a band-leader.  His place in music is something you don't understand unless you trace out the threads and see how much everything connects back to him.  He mattered.  Here he is, with the Allman Brothers.

Also, you get Nels Cline, who plays guitar for Wilco.  I'm not really much of a Wilco fan.  I prefer Son Volt, since I was more of a Jay Farrar fan than a Jeff Tweedy Fan, but Uncle Tupelo was big for me.  Anyway, here's Bruce, and it all traces back to Gregg, too.


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The challenge of maintaining skepticism in the Trump era

Every morning, before I type these, I scan the news, and come across stuff like this, saying that US intelligence intercepted communications between the Russians about compromising financial information they had on Trump and his people with which to blackmail him.  Is it true?

For any other presidency, we'd have to discount it as so absurd that it shouldn't really be taken seriously.  And that's today's theme, which gets into conspiracy theories and "fake news."

Did you hear?!   There's a new miracle supplement!  Eat as much as you want, but take this pill, and you'll never gain weight!  Doctors don't want you to know about it because then cardiologists will lose business!!!  Extra exclamation points!!!!!  Anyone with a brain should have a decent bullshit detector for things like medical nonsense.  If it sounds too good to be true, it is.

In politics, the basic problem with a conspiracy theory is that conspiracies themselves are really difficult to maintain.  A conspiracy requires more than one person, by definition.  The more complicated the conspiracy, the more people there are involved, and the more likely it is that someone blows the whistle, either intentionally or unintentionally.  That's why conspiracies don't work.  A chain is only as smart as its dumbest link, or something like that.  So, if someone tells you an outlandish story, you should probably discount it.

Fucking pizzagate...

Fucking BIRTHERISM...

And yet, trying to apply that rule to Trump?  Here's the thing.  These stories are outlandish, but they break because of stupidity.  These aren't massive, alien-concealing conspiracies.  These aren't generations-spanning, Adam Weishaupt-type deals.

And yet, they are difficult to test.  They are absurd, and for any other president, we would discount them completely.

There are two things going on here.  First, what is our standard of evidence, and second, what are our "priors?"

The standard of evidence, from a legal perspective, never changes, but I don't go at things from a lawyer's perspective.  I'm a social scientist.  I shave with my good buddy, Occam.  From a social-scientific perspective, I am fine with loads and loads and loads of indirect evidence as long as there is nothing exculpatory, and right now, the best Trump has is the missile he launched at Syria.  I've already explained by thinking on that.  The point, though, is that there is a difference between social-scientific reasoning and legal reasoning in terms of how we evaluate evidence.  Would I argue for a conviction on the basis of indirect and circumstantial evidence?  No, but as far as I'm concerned, he's already admitted to impeachable offenses anyway (obstruction of justice), so it doesn't matter.  At the end of the day, what I wrote months ago was this:  all Russia needed to have blackmail material on Trump was bribe someone in some office somewhere to get a copy of one of his tax returns.  Now, this story breaks, saying that Russian officials were talking to each other about compromising financial information.  Hmmm...

Then, there's that "priors" question.  I keep coming back to this.  In Bayesian statistics, probabilities are all about the quality of information we possess.  We start with a "prior," which is our initial estimate of the likelihood of something being true or an event occurring, and update that estimate as we encounter new information.  For any normal, sane, competent politician, our "prior" that the politician is controlled or controllable by Russia should be so low that updating that probability upward should require extraordinarily strong information.

The problem for Trump is that, as usual, he's not a normal politician.  He is stupid, corrupt and incompetent.  So, he starts with a higher probability for that "prior."  Thus, it doesn't take as much to move that prior a little bit.

To understand, here's a good one from Randall Munroe.  The basic point is that the Bayesian starts with such a low prior that the sun has gone nova that the device is irrelevant.  If the Bayesian were more uncertain, the device would matter.  When it comes to Trump, we are more uncertain.  It is harder to remain skeptical, even of absurd stories, because he is so obviously stupid and corruptible.

Combine that with the fact that these stories aren't of the kind that involve massive conspiracies where too many people are remaining silent, and yeah, it just gets difficult to keep the kind of skepticism that I keep about medical nonsense and other elaborate conspiracies.

This is our world now.

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

So, in my attempt to keep the memorials for Gregg Allman going, it took some thought for how to work that into Tuesday.  Then, I remembered Geoff Achison.  I don't actually have a favorite guitarist, but on some days, if forced to give an answer, I might give his name.  He is an Australian, but he spent some time in Georgia, hanging around with people associated with the Allmans, like Randall Bramblett-- a former member of Sea Level (formed by Allman-associate Chuck Leavell).  Achison did some shows with the Allman Brothers, and here he is, solo, playing Whipping Post, and sounding like a full band.  Here's another one for Gregg.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Some fascinating results surveying political scientists on democracy in America

After the 2016 election, I spent a bunch of posts pontificating about the state of democracy in America (and even making references to American Gods, which is now a tv series), but John Carey, Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan and Susan Stokes have actually been doing surveys of political scientists over time to see what we think, and measure change over time, including the effects of the 2016 election.  Truth in advertising: I was actually a participant in that survey, so whatever you read in this post and in any write-up of their results, factor in that observation.  I'm not sure how much that matters, but there it is.

Anyway, there is a write-up of the latest wave over at The Upshot at The New York Times.  It is largely what you would expect.  Political discourse is getting worse, as is accountability.  I really suggest that you head over to the main project page, though, at Bright Line Watch, and read the full results of Wave 2.  Lots of interesting stuff there.

As I said, I was a participant in the survey.  How did my responses match modal responses?  Relatively well.  The biggest deviation in my answers was on the campaign contribution question.  Respondents overall thought that campaign contributions have a big influence on policy decisions.  I, as you might guess, said they don't.  Most respondents probably aren't as steeped in this academic literature as I am, so they were going based on common perception rather than scholarly literature.  The scholarly literature here just doesn't show a big effect for campaign contributions on policy decisions.  Sorry, folks.  So, that was my yuge deviation.  Respondents were correct, though, about the fact that there is a bias in districts.  It isn't because of intentional "gerrymandering," though.  It comes from two things:  1) states and 2) where people choose to live.  The Senate is a mathematical disaster.  Two Senators per state is just fucked up, in strict, technical, mathematical terms, and it creates a bias.  There's no way around that.  The issue with House district lines is that Democrats live in cities, which means they are inefficiently clustered in their districts.  That creates a natural, mathematical advantage for Republicans, and the only way to cut into that is to carve up cities in weird, unnatural ways that destroy what we call "communities of interest," in redistricting jargon.  So, the respondents on that issue gave the right answer, but for the wrong reason.  But, the survey didn't make them show their work, so they get credit.

Anyway, where things get more interesting in the Wave 2 write-up is in the change-over-time stuff.  Towards the end of the write-up at Bright Line Watch, they give you estimates, on a 100-point scale, of democracy in America over the long-haul.  When I answered those questions, I thought I was totally pulling numbers out of my ass.  Then, there was an open-ended question where we explained ourselves.  What floored me was how close my numbers were to the means as I thought through how to rank the US pre-Civil War, pre-suffrage, pre-Voting Rights Act, the 1980's, 1990's, the 2000's and today.  This is kind of an interesting thing, when we look at ridiculous scales like this.  If you are reading this, there is a decent chance that you have heard me bash 100-point scales before because they have what I call "illusory precision," meaning that they have more possible scores than we can really wrap our brains around.  And yet, with over 1000 political scientists,* apparently my scores were pretty close to the means.  Maybe I'm not as unmutual as I thought.  As a more general point, though, there is something about how we, as trained monkeys, I mean, trained political scientists make assessments that means we think through these processes similarly.  Presuming we know the literature, of course (recall my different answers on the campaign contribution thing).  Still, I am fascinated that my answers on the overall assessment were that close to the means, historically.

And yes, that means that things only got a little worse when Trump won.  Why, after all of that virtual ink I spilled in December and January, would I say that democracy only declined by about 10 points or so in the last couple of years?  Because we still don't know the fallout.  That's the real question.  The 2016 election was a disaster.  An immeasurably corrupt and incompetent, psychopathic idiot, whom the vast majority of the country knew was unfit for office won the election basically because the other party won two elections in a row.  As far as I'm concerned, that calls into question the very premise of electoral politics.  It is the political equivalent of a country trying to win a Darwin Award.  However, Trump's very incompetence may limit the damage he does.  So far, he hasn't accomplished much, and during the campaign, I repeatedly reminded everyone of the story of Jimmy Carter-- the outsider who won his party's nomination against the wishes of his party's insiders.  Trump's only real criticism of Hitler is that he lost, which is why he has had so many problems with statements about the Holocaust.  But, Trump is also dumber than my cats, which is why he admitted, on national TV, to exactly what forced Nixon from office within a couple of months of his inauguration.  Trump is stupid beyond the comprehension of any sentient being.  I am reminded of this:



Of course, Dark Helmet is undone by his own actual stupidity.  Will Trump be undone by his stupidity?  Will democracy be saved by Trump's incompetence?  We'll see, but that's why I only scored a 10-point decline in democracy when I filled out that survey.

Anyway, interesting results.


*As a final aside, I do want to say that the response rate on this survey was 12%.  To the 88% of political scientists who didn't respond:  FUCK YOU PEOPLE!

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

To borrow from Chevy Chase, it's Monday morning and Gregg Allman is still dead.  Unfortunately, that's not funny.  I could post something from Eat a Peace, sorry, Eat a Peach, or Live at the Fillmore East, and I know every note and vocal inflection from those albums by heart.  Gregg kept performing and making great music, though.  In 2003, the Allmans released a studio album called Hittin' the Note that was actually pretty damned good, with this one that serves as a fitting tune for today.  This isn't the Duane/Dickey/Berry line-up, but as far as I'm concerned, once you lay off the nostalgia and keep an open mind, you'll hear what this line-up had to offer.



By the way, I didn't get around to this earlier, but Oteil Burbridge's other musical mentor, Col. Bruce Hampton also died very recently.  I should put something up for that too.  You probably haven't heard of the Col., but he was very important for modern improvisational rock.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Why John Boehner's opinion of Trump matters

You may have read by now that former Speaker John Boehner has called Trump a "complete disaster."  Observe my total lack of cognitive dissonance.  If you are reading this, there is a high likelihood that you have, at some point, taken a class from me or otherwise heard me gush about the brilliance of John Boehner, and my opinion of Trump is basically the same as that of most people with Ph.D.s.  (According to 2016 NES data, those with Ph.D.s voted for Clinton by about 3 to 1-- this is the only election in which I have ever been comfortable publicly admitting my choice, but seriously, folks... seriously...).

So anyway, I like Boehner, I hate Trump, Boehner hates Trump.  Yay for cognitive consistency!  However, I'd like to elaborate here on why it is so important to pay attention to Boehner's opinion.  It has to do with why I am so fond of Boehner.

Trump fancies himself a deal-maker.  Maybe you've heard about that.  He pretends that he wrote a book about it, although the actual author of the book claims that Trump is a raging psychopath, and has profusely apologized for his part in aiding Trump's public rise.  Regardless, Trump doesn't know jack fucking shit about deal-making.  You know who does?  John Boehner.

Nobody in modern congressional history has ever had a more difficult job than John Boehner.  The basic problem he faced was that his caucus was filled with, well, let's call them "donkey-raping shit-eaters," although Boehner himself just called them "knuckleheads."  You now know them as the House Freedom Caucus, but in the past, they have gone by such names as the Tea Party, the Visigoths, and the Reavers.

After the 2010 election, these mouth-breathers decided it would be fun to threaten to blow up the economy of every country on the planet by not raising the debt ceiling.  And they would never vote for any deal.  Ever.  This put Boehner in one hell of a pickle.  The normal job of a Speaker is to hold the majority party together.  Boehner's job, though, was to split the majority party apart, and get a bunch of Republicans to join with the Democrats to vote for deals, when those Republicans would rather stick with the Reavers thinking they would avoid primary challenges.  Reavers, after all, are cannibals.  So, take the normal job of Speaker-- cajoling Members of Congress into doing something that they don't want to do-- and add to that the problem that Boehner had to split the party apart rather than unify it, and he had the toughest job around.  The natural state of a party when every member is basically a conservative is unity.  The natural state, when those same members are scared of primary challenges rather than general election challenges, is moving to the right, and not joining with the Democrats.  Everything Boehner had to do meant fighting against the tide.

This country would have defaulted on the debt, several times over if Boehner weren't as smart as he is, and as savvy a deal-maker as he is.

Do you spend any time in the kitchen?  If so, you have probably chopped a bunch of onions.  It is a routine task.  In normal times, so is raising the debt ceiling.  No points for that, in normal times.  However, if you chop an onion, one-handed, blindfolded, with a dull knife, I'll be impressed.  John Boehner chopped an onion, one-handed, blindfolded, with a dull knife.  If he hadn't, we'd all be fucked.  (More fucked).

And then there's Donnie-boy Trump.  Deal-maker.  How's that deal-making going for him?  Yeah.  Complete disaster.  Well put, Mr. Boehner.

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



Gregg Allman just died.  If all you know of The Allman Brothers is "Ramblin' Man," then you don't understand one of the greatest bands in history.  As a guitar nut, I can gush for hours about both Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, but also about Warren Haynes, and holy shit, Derek Trucks, who started playing guitar for the band before he could drive.  Yes, he was Butch Trucks's nephew, but he was also just a prodigy guitarist who deserved to be in the band.  Butch committed suicide a few months ago.  Derek and Susan Tedeschi currently have the best blues band in generations going together, though.

I haven't even started on their bass players.  They lost Berry Oakley, and kept going.  Oteil Burbridge.  Amazing bassist.  Then the percussionists...  Jaimoe has a great side project called Jaimoe's Jasssz Band.

But of course, this is a post to honor Gregg.  He could sing, he could play keyboards, he could write, and he kept that band going.  The history of The Allman Brothers deserves more than a post.  It deserves a book or two, but they have been written.  This is part of my Sunday bluegrass series, so today you get a bluegrass cover of Midnight Rider.  Tomorrow morning is the blues series.  You better believe that'll be for Gregg too.  I even have something for Tuesday in mind.

In political obituaries, former Senator Jim Bunning died.  He was the Ted Cruz of his era, meaning that everybody on both sides of the isle hated him for being the platonic ideal of "douchebag."  So, ya' know, good day/bad day.

Gregg, we'll miss, along with Butch, Duane and Berry.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Donald Trump and the art of the insult

It's a long weekend, and I thought I might do another weird post.  I've been thinking about the "evil loser" comment Trump made about ISIS, and the frustrating lack of creativity it shows.  I have read a few comments about how the word, "loser," diminishes ISIS, and that this was part of the point, but that misses the fact that Trump calls everyone he doesn't like a "loser."  He is a simple-minded person who thinks of everything in terms of zero-sum games of winners and losers.  It is generic, and that's the problem.

In contrast, here's Mr. Warmth himself, Don Rickles.  This is a long compilation, so watch as much as you want, but in the modern, politically correct era, I am supposed to say some shit like "trigger warning" or something because Rickles made a lot of racist and ethnic jokes.  He got away with it because he was Don Rickles.  Don't try this unless you, too, are Don Rickles.  (Also, this was decades ago).



I don't even know where to start here, so I won't.  Don Rickles.  Rest in the grave you dug for yourself.  Rather than try to unpack all of that, how about this?  Here's a more brief gem from some writers who clearly learned a lot from Mr. Warmth:  Matt Stone and Trey Parker.



Rather than calling someone a "loser," how about calling someone a "shit-faced cockmaster?"  Or, a "donkey-raping shit-eater?"  Maybe a "boner-biting bastard?"  Nice alliteration there, by the way, and that's before we get into the fun of using "unclefucker" rather than simply "motherfucker."*

A Don Rickles routine, or even the juvenile-yet-hilarious name-calling from "Asses of Fire" deviates from basic, generic insults in that it shows thought.  That is precisely what Trump never does.  He has a few stock insults to which he always returns.  Loser.  Third-rate.  Those are his favorites.  Beyond that, he insults women's appearances, and so forth, but he just never shows any thought or creativity.

And there is some interesting history here.  Years ago, Barack Obama referred to ISIS as the "JV team" of terrorism.  Now, I'm not a sports guy, but whoever that team is, they'd probably still be able to beat me up, particularly after I call them "donkey-raping shit-eaters."  Apparently, though, this is a diminishing comment, and Obama was attacked for having made it.  Yet, to call ISIS "losers" is similarly diminishing.

Another way to diminish them might, in principle, be to show the effort of intellectual engagement with other adversaries, in the form of witty barbs, and not bother with ISIS because they aren't worth the effort.  So, unload a brutal tirade of devastating verbiage towards Kim Jong Un, while not bothering with the effort for ISIS, and just call them "losers" because they don't deserve the mental effort of the tirade.

You see the problem.  If everyone you don't like is a "loser," that model has no predictive power, in social science terms.  See?  I'm using social science!  Fuck, yeah!

This, then, is the basic problem of the Trump insult.  It is always the same.  My advice to Trump:  hire a good writer.




*Fun note as I write this:  the spell-checker built into the browser/blog-editor/thingamajig doesn't object to "motherfucker" because "motherfucker" is a known word.  It does object to "unclefucker."  It also objects to "cockmaster."  I am not particularly surprised by either, but it is interesting to point these out, particularly since English is constructed similarly to German, based around compound words.  George Carlin once did an extended follow-up to the 7-words bit, on whether or not "motherfucker" belonged on the list if "fuck" was also on the list.  This is turning into a longer note than I expected...  Go watch a shit-load of George Carlin.

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

This is how you do insults.

Friday, May 26, 2017

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



Depending on whom you ask...

I have a new favorite Representative!

As you may have guessed from yesterday's teaser, I have long held a special place in my heart for the wackiest Members of Congress.  I doubt anyone will ever replace former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) as the true love of my life, but now I'll have Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT) to bring me some happiness, and that dude is fucking psycho!  I'm so happy I could cry!  Yes, that's the reason I'm crying.

Anyway, I've got actual scholarly research and shit here.  Peer-reviewed and everything.  You can download it here.  The method I used doesn't work anymore because the fucking killjoys at Google changed their algorithm, but it was fun while it lasted.  Have you ever played around with the auto-complete feature of Google's search?  I did.  I noticed that when you typed in names like "Michele Bachmann," you got a bunch of epithets.  Why?  When people did Google searches for Bachmann, it tended to be for things like "Michele Bachmann idiot," and sometimes, "Michele Bachmann batshit crazy!"  Why?  Because she's about one neuron short of a synapse.  So, I put together a data set of the epithets that Google suggested for every Member of Congress.  Then, I crunched the numbers.  What were the predictors of Google suggesting a lot of epithets?  What were the consequences?  Basically, if you were an ideological extremist, Google suggested epithets, and those for whom Google suggested epithets were at a slight electoral disadvantage, both because they helped their opponents raise money, and because voters were put off by whatever got people doing those Google searches.  It was a fun, little paper.  When I presented it at the APSA, people had their computers out revealing all of the fun additional things Google suggested for people in Congress.  Most fun I ever had at a conference.  (What do you expect?  I'm obsessed...)

What does this have to do with Greg Gianforte?  Um... Do I have to say it?  Dude's fuckin' nuts.  Oh, by the way, does anyone remember Wes Cooley?  How about Cynthia McKinney?  Just sayin'...  Anyway, Gianforte, like Bachmann, has no business being anywhere near the levers of power, but represents a constituency with a partisan balance that just favors him.  Now, what if this incident had happened earlier so that people had time to digest and respond to it?  I don't know.  I can also pretty much guarantee that this isn't an isolated thing.  Gianforte is going to be one of my favorites.  That means he is going to say a whole lot of crazy shit, and Democrats are going to throw money at a challenger.

Now, you may notice that, in general, I am skeptical of the effects of money.  Except for challengers.  Here's the thing.  Incumbents don't really need money.  Their spending doesn't matter that much.  Challengers need money, and their spending in congressional elections matters.  A lot.  Gianforte is going to be the best fundraiser that Montana Democrats could ever hope for.

That said, Montana is a Republican state.  Party tends to overwhelm pretty much everything else.  Even a batshit fucking crazy idiot who assaults a reporter for doing his job, to the point that even the Fox News people were unwilling to provide the guy with a sympathetic witness.

How long can Gianforte hold onto that seat?  I'd give him a term or two.  Timing plus party got him over the top, so to speak, but with that kind of temper, he'll probably self-destruct.  The crazy people in Congress who manage to stay there are the ones who just spout off at the mouth, or better yet, let their party leaders keep them hidden, like a deformed sibling in the basement.  Gianforte is more likely to Hulk-out on the House floor and beat the crap out of John Lewis yelling "WHITE POWER!" in a fit of 'roid-rage.

As a side-note, it is fun to look back at the "batshit-list" from my old paper, and see who made the list back then.  Anthony Weiner made the list, as did Mike Pence (he was in the House at the time).  Paul Ryan, as a young-'un, was way down on the list, but he was there.  In the Senate, Beauregard Sessions was up there.  Beyond that, oh, how I wish this method still worked to see what fun I could have with Trump...

Thursday, May 25, 2017

I'm waiting to comment on the body-slam thing until we see who wins...

I'll have something to say about it, and it involves "the batshit paper..."  Feel free to read it and you'll get a sense of what I think about that special election (besides something about my fondness for bluegrass), but I'll wait until afterwards for more detailed commentary.

CBO projections on Trumpcare/Ryancare/whatevercare

There shouldn't be any real surprises about the Congressional Budget Office's estimates on the revised House Republican plan.  Fundamentally, conservatism is a rejection of redistribution through the tax system, so the plan reduces the level of redistribution by cutting taxes and reducing subsidies.  That's... the point of the ideology.  You don't go to a boxing match and wonder, "hey, what's with all the punching?"

From a public relations standpoint, a reduction in coverage of 23 million doesn't look good, but that isn't the point for a conservative because that isn't the goal for a conservative.  So, remember some terminology that I keep using.  "Valence."  Good ole' Donald Stokes drew a distinction between "valence" issues and "positional" issues back in a 1963 article called "Spatial Models of Party Competition."  With a positional issue, we disagree on what we want to achieve.  Abortion.  Should abortion be legal or not?  That's positional.  With a valence issue, we agree on the goal, but disagree on how to get there.  Strong economy, national security, etc.

Should everyone have healthcare?  Liberals think this is a valence issue because they don't understand how conservatives think.  A headline news story about 23 million people losing their health insurance sounds bad.  Remember, though, that most people really are neither liberal nor conservative.  Those neither-liberal-nor-conservative-folk aren't likely to be happy with the GOP when they see such stories, but those same people could have different reactions to the core policy issues presented differently, e.g. a focus on premiums or which people get which benefits.  Remember that Obamacare was unpopular when it passed!  Increasing the number of people with healthcare coverage is not a valence issue.  It is a positional issue.  If you oppose redistribution, you don't care about the reduction.  Rather, that's the goal.

The reduction in coverage is the point of the bill.  Republicans wouldn't be doing anything if it didn't reduce coverage.  Their objection to Obamacare was that it was an expansion of the welfare state.  The CBO numbers are a public relations problem for the GOP, but as I have been saying, and will continue to write, their likelihood of successful repeal, partial or otherwise, is low anyway.  Understanding this, though, requires understanding that the CBO just pointed out the difference between a positional preference and a valence preference.  This is basic ideology.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Trump budget and economic projections

Trump's budget is out, for what that's worth, and of course, it makes optimistic assumptions about economic growth, but hey, does anyone remember when Bernie Sanders put out a plan that only made the numbers add up by assuming that it would create 5.3% economic growth?  So, yeah, who is the real con artist?  (Oh, I still hate Bernie Sanders...)

Anyway, Trump's budget makes optimistic assumptions about economic growth to make the numbers add up with the magic of "dynamic scoring."  Tax cuts create economic growth, which produces more revenue, blah blah blah, and Trump's people factored that into their numbers.  I won't get into the economics of that.  Rather, I'd like to get into the problem of projecting the state of the economy.  First, some basic data.  Here's GDP growth, in a few graphs.  The problem is that you need to pick a time frame.  You'll see why.  Below, you'll see one from the 70's to the present, 80's to the present, and 2000 to the present.  All data come from our good friend, Fred.  (Federal Reserve Economic Data).







The reason the time frame is important is that it matters how high up that y-axis goes.  From 2000 to the present, economic growth has never been very good.  In the 1970s, growth had that big spike over 15% (the economy in the 1970s was complicated...), which makes everything else look smaller by comparison.  However, even factoring that in, there were sustained periods of higher growth than what we have seen since 2000.

Why?  That's... a really hard question, and that's kind of today's point.  Forecasting when a recession will hit as exceedingly difficult, and that makes predicting growth in the short-to-medium term damn-near impossible.  Then there's the question of whether or not we really are facing secular stagnation, which is also hard to test.  Empirically, it is the case that we saw relatively lower growth both before and after the "great recession," but there isn't, to my mind, a clear explanation of why.  That third graph, though, looks a little symmetric, though...

Finally, of course, there is the problem of what we call the "exogenous shock," which is the fancy, social science buzzword for "shit happening."  I reference Philip Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment a lot, but it is relevant for economics too.  Not to push radical skepticism too far, but unpredictable exogenous shocks can affect an economy, in either direction, and our inability to predict what the shock might be means we have trouble predicting where the economy will be at any given point in time.

For budgeting, that means if your goal is reducing the deficit, you don't make optimistic projections.  That's why the CBO has historically not used "dynamic scoring."  Yes, fiscal policy affects the economy.  John Maynard Keynes would agree.  But, if your goal is to reduce the deficit, be a pessimist about the economy because predicting this stuff is absurdly difficult.  Obviously, that isn't Trump's goal or the GOP's goal, but we knew that.

Who knew budgeting could be so complicated?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Supreme Court ruling on redistricting in North Carolina

Yes, there was a terrorist bombing, but there was a Supreme Court ruling on redistricting, and I'm an expert on the later, so I'll write about that one.

The Supreme Court struck down North Carolina's redistricting plan based on their continued total incoherence on the subject of redistricting.  It all boils down to this, and will continue to boil down to this:  use race, but don't use race.  Use just the right amount of race, or we'll strike down your redistricting plan.

Here's the bind.  Definition time.  Descriptive representation:  having people in office with similar demographic traits to your own.  The Voting Rights Act effectively requires that states draw "majority-minority" districts, which are districts in which a majority of the population is of a racial or ethnic minority because, basically, white people will only vote for white people, so the only way non-whites get descriptive representation is if enough of the population of the district is non-white that the minority group gets to pick their own Representative.

But, you can't do things exclusively based on race.  So, use race, but not too much.  There's the bind.  Every redistricting plan gets challenged, on the basis of race.  Well, I suppose you can't challenge a redistricting plan in Wyoming, but fuck Wyoming.  (In principle, you could challenge a state legislative plan there, but isn't the state all-white anyway?  No, I'm not going to bother to look it up.  I'm going to make an ass out of u and me.  It's fucking Wyoming.  Fuck them.  If you are reading this from Wyoming, no you're not.)

Then there's the problem that race and party are really closely intertwined, particularly in the South.

That means we need to talk about party, and partisan gerrymandering.  So, here's a little demonstration I like to use when I teach about how to take partisan advantage of the redistricting process.  Imagine a group of 33 people, 21 Democrats and 12 Republicans, to be grouped into 3 districts.  How could Republicans manipulate that process?  Imagine if they could pack 11 Democrats into one district, and then "crack" the remaining 10 into groups of 5 and 5?  That way, in District 1, you get 11 Democrats and 0 Republicans, and in Districts 2 and 3, you get 6 Republicans and 5 Democrats each?  This is called a "pack and crack" strategy.  You know what that packed district is?  It is a majority-minority district.  Republicans have strategic incentives to pack as many minorities as possible into those majority-minority districts because they are wasted votes.  The way to get a partisan advantage is to make your majorities efficient and to make the other party's majorities inefficient.

And if you are doing so for minority representation under the Voting Rights Act, that's totally cool.  If you are doing it for partisan advantage, um...  And this is where we get into the meat of the case, and the broader question of the "justiciability" of the partisan gerrymander, which isn't even really what Cooper v. Harris was about.  However, the Court has been tiptoeing around that one for decades.  They sorta-kinda want to be able to strike down plans that give too much of a partisan advantage to one party, but can't decide where to draw the line (and besides, since the Justices are kind of partisan, will they really be consistent over time once they start?).

Anyway, the Supreme Court didn't give a clear line for how much race can be taken into account.  They'll never do that.  Why?  They can't.  The idea of creating such a rule is absurd and stupid.  It'll never happen.  As long as they have the Voting Rights Act working against the principle of "it can't be all about race," they will be in similar binds.

No, Rick Hasen is pretty much right here, and people who really care about obscure topics like this should follow the Election Law Blog.  This just opens up the flood gates for challenge after challenge.  That example I used above for the partisan gerrymander?  It is the same one I use in every class in which I teach the subject, and I always point out that the district with 11 Democrats is a majority-minority district.

The Supreme Court has now recognized that fact, and decided that it means that a partisan gerrymander in the South basically is a racial gerrymander.  That means they will be more willing to strike down partisan gerrymanders, at least in the South.  When Trump fired Comey, I referenced Ben Bradlee and the "holy shit" thing.  Rick Hasen is a mellow sort of guy who wrote things like, "wow," and, "holy cow."

Fuck that.  Holy shit.

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

Who said Israel?  Nobody said Israel!  Hey, an Israeli jazz guitarist!  OK, fusion, but he's still good.


Monday, May 22, 2017

More plagiarism in Trumpland: professorial comments on plagiarism



It was funny when Melania Trump's speech at the RNC plagiarized Michelle Obama's speech.  It was absolutely hilarious that Trump's people tried to deny the plagiarism charge, which they did for a long time.  It was... less than funny when that started to become a pattern.  You probably don't even remember who Monica Crowley is, but you know who Neil Gorsuch is, even though you probably forgot that he is a fucking plagiarist piece of shit.

Now, Sheriff David Clarke has been caught.  Clarke is being nominated for a Homeland Security post, and while I could focus on the irony of law enforcement officials (or judges!) being caught for this kind of thing, I'm instead going to get professorial.

Clarke pulled one of my sentimental-favorite acts.  I can't actually share with you, the readers, any of the details of my top-ranked cheaters, but there are so many.  How shall I put this?  When I walk into the office of the Academic Integrity Board here at CWRU to hand in paperwork, it's a little like this:



As I said, though, I can't actually give you the juicy details of the best stories because we have a little thing in this country called FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act).  Oh, though, how I wish I could elaborate on my favorite scams.  Some of the shit students try to pull rides the despicable/hilarious line in ways that... well...

Sorry for the tease, but I'd like to keep my job.

Anywho, most plagiarism is boring, stupid and uncreative.  Clarke's plagiarism was boring, stupid and uncreative.  Lift others' words directly, don't put quote marks around them, and include a footnote, to pretend like you are doing legitimate citations.  Here's the thing:  every single student everywhere knows that if they use a direct quote, they are required to place quotation marks around the words that are lifted directly.  Placing a footnote to the source material is not sufficient.  If they aren't your words, you need to admit that they aren't your words.  Otherwise, you are pretending that someone else's words are your own.  That's called LYING.  You know this.  EVERYONE knows this.  One of the lies that I just get really tired of hearing is when students pretend to think that they are staying within the lines when they pull this shit and get caught.  They know what they are doing.  Clarke knew what he was doing.

Of course, there's always the old comma-switcharoo, which is where you change the order of phrases before and after the comma, but keep the sequence of words within each clause, thereby making the sentence not technically an exact quote.  That way, you aren't quoting, right?  Yeah, right.  You know that's bullshit.  So does every plagiarist who pulls that act.  There are plenty of variations on this theme, and they're all bullshit.

Clarke cheated and he knew what he was doing.

Oh, and so did Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Neil Fucking Gorsuch, Plagiarist.

I've got a new trick that I'm just itchin' to try.  I think I'll roll this one out next semester.  At the beginning of the semester, I'll hand out a quiz, worth 1% of the course grade.  Which of these acts counts as plagiarism, and which doesn't?  Give out a few simple examples, like quoting without quotation marks, but including the footnote (the Clarke scam).  I think everyone will do just fine, when they have actual points on the line for giving the correct answer...  I can't wait to see how that turns out, and once I have them giving me the correct answer, it'll be extra funny when they try to tell me that they didn't understand the rules after they plagiarize, 'cuz, c'mon.  Someone will try.

And who knows?  Maybe that'll get them onto the Supreme Court, or at least a nomination to the Department of Homeland Security...


Side note:  number of plagiarism instances in Clarke's Master's Thesis?  47!  Go, Pomona College!  Yes, that's the origin of 47 in Star Trek.  Hey, I got some sci-fi in here today!

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The statistics of impeachment

It really is astonishing just how quickly Trump has flamed out as President.  I still remain skeptical that he will be impeached, though, and it is worth thinking about base-level statistics.

We have had 44 past presidents.  (Do we have to get into the Grover Cleveland issue?  Please, no.)  Of those, two were actually impeached, and one resigned before being impeached.  Andrew Johnson was impeached for, um... firing Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War.  Nixon resigned before being impeached.  Was there a firing involved in that?  I forget...  Apparently Trump did too.  Oh, and Clinton was impeached for lying to Ken Starr about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, which he was investigating because, um... uh... because he was given a mandate to find something for which Republicans could impeach Clinton.  While articles of impeachment were passed in the House for both Johnson and Clinton, both were acquitted in the Senate because in neither case could the Senate muster the 2/3 supermajority required to convict.  Nixon could have been convicted, which was why he resigned before the House even got to the point of passing articles of impeachment.

So:

Presidents removed by impeachment:  0%

Presidents impeached:  2/44, or roughly 4.5%

Presidents implicitly forced out by threat of impeachment:  1/44, or roughly 2.3%

Notice who isn't in here.  People like Warren Harding.  The Harding administration was about as corrupt as they came, and it wasn't necessarily that Harding himself was corrupt, but he was either stupid, or just willing to look the other way as the Teapot Dome scandal, and others played out around him.

Anyway, though, the problem here is in terms of what we call "Bayesian" probability.  I've referenced this before.  These numbers are just base probabilities, or, "priors."  The estimates of Trump's likelihood of getting tossed out or resigning are higher because, well, that dude is seriously corrupt, and very stupid about it.  He has already publicly admitted to exactly what got Nixon thrown out, and we are just getting started with the investigation.

With Bayesian probabilities, we start with a prior, and "update" the prior as we incorporate new information.  So, how much do we update those base probabilities?

Nixon did get forced out.  He is the closest analog.  Does that mean the probability goes close to 1?  Based on a sub-sample of 1?  No.  We can't put that much leverage on a single case.  We also have the party problem.  Nixon's own party eventually turned on him because Republicans back then were willing to do so.  They're not anymore, and I have written a few posts explaining why, based partially on the memory of Nixon and the aftermath of Watergate.

Regardless, there isn't a lot of history to guide us here, beyond base probabilities.  Then again, we are already well outside the bounds of historical norms here.  That's becoming our national motto.

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

For the most persecuted leader ever, facing the worst witch hunt ever...


Saturday, May 20, 2017

History's judgment and the Trump Presidency: Early thoughts with analogies to music and Chris Cornell

Yes, this will be a weird one.

Let's assume, for the purposes of this post, that Trump won't burn the planet to a cinder in a nuclear temper tantrum, nor cause the country to collapse in some economic or political catastrophe.  Just go with it, for the purposes of this post.

Chris Cornell, the lead singer for Soundgarden, died this week.  Once upon a time, I actually liked Soundgarden.  I don't listen to them anymore, and you probably could have guessed that from the kind of music I post here, but in the early 1990's, well, I am a member of Generation X, even if we don't use that term anymore.

I never liked Nirvana.  I came at things from the perspective of a guitarist, and if I could play a band's stuff without trying very hard, then they sucked.  Nirvana sucked.  Now, I don't want to just... gouge away (get it?)* at Nirvana.  This isn't about them.  Soundgarden was a good band.  Kim Thayil had a unique approach to the guitar.  It's sort of a George Harrison thing.  You don't understand that it isn't easy to do unless you play guitar, and it was conceptually interesting.  So, yes, I liked Soundgarden.

And, musical critics continue to be kind to Soundgarden in retrospect.  Allmusic's ratings give 4.5 stars to their major label debut, Badmotorfinger, and 5 out of 5 stars to Superunknown.  I decided to listen to the latter for the first time in many years when Cornell died.  I never liked the most famous song-- "Black Hole Sun," but I can still hear what originally appealed to me about the band, even though it just isn't to my tastes anymore.

Regardless, I am not at all embarrassed to admit that I once liked Soundgarden.  My tastes have changed.  Part of that is age, and part of that is the internet, and the ability it has given me to explore music that I couldn't have found in 1991 when Badmotorfinger came out.  At least it was different from the rest of what was playing on the radio and on eMpTyV (I can't claim credit for that one-- I believe it came from either Animaniacs or Pinky & The Brain).  I doubt there are many people who are embarrassed to have been Soundgarden fans.

On the other hand, shortly before Soundgarden and the other Seattle bands made the word "alternative" a dirty word, so to speak, there was another act whose name I really don't want to type, but I must type in order to make the point of this post.  Milli Vanilli.

I...


... feel...


... vile...

... just typing that.

Do you remember Milli Vanilli?  Synthesized dance-pop crap with lip-syncing models pretending to be the singers?  It was a big scandal in the music industry.  Some producers put together the sound behind the scenes, and found a pair of models to dance and pretend to sing so that they could sell the "music" based on videos and the stage act.  The thing is, they were "yuge."  They were stars.  And then, the "singers" were revealed to be lip-syncing fakers.  Suddenly, everyone hated Milli Vanilli.  You couldn't find a Milli Vanilli fan if you tried.  Nobody you asked had ever liked Milli Vanilli.

Me?  At the time, I was a classic-rock-and-blues-only kid.  Why?  Guitar, guitar and more guitar.  This scene hit a little too close to home for me...



Ouch.

When Milli Vanilli were around, shortly before Soundgarden made it big, my tastes were quite different from what they are now.  I hadn't gotten into jazz yet!  Me, not listening to jazz!  I didn't listen to country!  Some of what I liked, I would be embarrassed to admit.  I had a bit of a metal phase.  Why?  Guitar.  Notice some consistency here?

But I never liked Milli Vanilli.  Of course, nobody would ever admit to having liked Milli Vanilli.  Unlike Chris Cornell.  Whatever you think of grunge, the guy had some pipes, and he didn't lip-sync.

So, I was getting around to Donald Trump.  The judgment of history on a president can change over time.  When Gerald Ford was inaugurated, he had a 71% approval rating, according to Gallup.  That dropped pretty quickly, and pardoning Nixon probably had something to do with that.  In the immediate aftermath of his term, that action tainted the memory of his administration, but the judgment of history has been more kind to him.  His stated reason for pardoning Nixon was so that the country would simply move on rather than continue to be torn apart.  Was it the right thing to do?  We can still argue about that, but it wasn't so obviously wrong that Ford should be ranked with, say, James Buchanan, or even Herbert Hoover among disastrous presidents.  Ford's stock among historians has risen somewhat over time, even if he isn't considered one of the greats.

Eisenhower stands out as another whose legacy changed over time.  Richard Neustadt wrote, in Presidential Power, that Eisenhower was basically incompetent, but a later book by Fred Greenstein, The Hidden-Hand Presidency, argued that Eisenhower was much more politically sophisticated than Neustadt thought.  Publicly, of course, Eisenhower's memory will always be tied not just to the 1950's, but having been the guy who beat Hitler.  He's Captain Fucking America.  The real one, not the fascist one.**

Now, what about Trump?

Is he approaching Milli Vanilli territory?  This is a disastrous presidency, by any measure.  Back in March, when Trump decided to give himself an early grade, I posted this.  The biggest mark against him?  Flynn.  That was in March.  It is starting to look like Flynn may take him down entirely.  Trump is incompetent on a scale we haven't seen since James Buchanan.  The only difference is that he isn't in a similarly difficult situation.  If he were, he'd fuck it up even worse.  Why?  He's just that stupid.

So, what happens in a few years, when we look back on the flaming wreckage of the Trump Presidency?  Which hopefully is only metaphorical flaming wreckage.  He is unlikely to have had any real policy accomplishments, and instead just scandal after scandal.  Will anyone admit to having voted for him?

We ask, in the National Election Studies surveys, about past voting behavior.  In 2016, there was a gap in the surveys between how people said they would vote, and how people did vote.  I wonder how big the gap will be, in 2020, between how people said they had voted in the prior election, and the actual election results.  Will finding a 2016 Trump voter become as difficult as finding a Milli Vanilli fan after the lip-syncing thing was revealed?  I'm exaggerating, obviously, because party loyalty will prevent it from getting to that level of extremity, but you get the point.

And it depends on how bad this gets.  Right now, PredictIt has shares of Trump leaving office by the end of 2018 trading at 42 cents on the dollar.

Well, that was a weekend ramble...  This is for Chris.  My tastes have changed, but I have some nostalgia for his band, and hey, it gave me an idea for a post.



*Go look up the history of Nirvana and The Pixies.  I admit, I'm getting really obscure here.

**OK, I'm getting obscure again.

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

I'm going to cheat today.  Todd Snider plays enough country that even though this isn't really country, there's enough twang that I'll use it today.  It will serve as a tribute to Chris Cornell, who died this week.

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

Some days, I have only one valid choice.

On witch hunts

Oh, poor Donnie Trump.  It's an unprecedented witch hunt!

This, I cannot resist.  I actually teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  I detest what we often call "magical thinking," and the root of "witch hunt" is, of course, the hunt for demonically magical entities (fuck off, self-righteous, hippy-dippy wiccans).  I have written about some of my heroes here before, like George Carlin and Frank Zappa.  Another one?  James Randi:  The Greatest Debunker Ever.  If you don't know about him, there is so much out there, but here is a quick video to introduce you to him.



If you want to have more fun at the expense of that asshole, Uri Geller, here's a quick master class in trolling a douchebag:



Magic is fake.  Witches, psychics, spoonbenders... In order to hunt for them, you have to accept the premise that there is something real in the world that is scientifically unsupportable.

The attraction to using the term, "witch hunt," for some vast, communist conspiracy, of the kind that operates in the psychosis-addled mind of General Jack D. Ripper, then, seems apt.



And so, when we think of a political witch hunt, we think of the hunt for Russian collaborators in some conspiracy too far-fetched to be true.

And here we are, with a President claiming that he is the victim of a witch hunt amid accusations of connections between him, his associates, and Russia.  In any normal circumstance, with any normal politician, "witch hunt" would be the exact right term to use, which brings me back to a variation of the same point I have been making repeatedly.  Trump is not a politician.  "Politician" is not a slur, and Trump's outsider status is not an exonerating factor.  If he were a normal politician, it would be absurd to think that there might be some nefarious thing going on with Russia.  (Then again, what about Dana Rohrabacher?  Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy were "joking" about him, in addition to Trump...)

Then again, Michael Flynn.  Paul Manafort.  Carter Page.  Jeff Sessions!  Jeff Sessions lied about having met with the Russians during his confirmation hearings without even being prompted about it!  Trump's own words, regularly praising Putin, and asking Putin to intervene.  Putin's actual intervention on his behalf.  Trump's known financial ties in the past to Russians, and his continued refusal to release his tax returns.  His firing of Comey, and his admission of the reason!  On national fucking tv!

Yesterday, Trump claimed that he never told Comey to back off of Flynn, but... yeah, fuckin' right.  Trump is a pathological liar, and for all the complaints that anyone can make about Comey (I've made plenty), I've never heard anyone call him a liar.  All we learned from that is that there are obviously no tapes.  (If there ever were, they have been destroyed by now).

Yes, it is insane to think that a US President might be tied to Russia, but the facts on the table are insane.  This is the bizarre nature of the witch hunt.  The wording suggests that accepting the premise of the hunt requires rejecting the idea that normal rules apply.

What we already know demonstrates that they don't.  If I had to guess, I would guess that we won't get prosecutable evidence of collusion with Russia.  Then again, Trump admitted to obstruction of justice already by admitting why he really fired Comey within days of everyone calling bullshit on the administration's flimsy initial justification, so who knows what trouble he'll get himself into?  Trump is... not a smart man.

The hunt for a witch is the hunt for that which does not exist.  Just ask Christine O'Donnell.*  The question is about the kind of laws that are being broken by the existence of that which you are hunting.  Physical laws cannot be broken.  Political laws can be broken as long as those charged with enforcing them look the other way.

Hey, remember Jason Chaffetz?  The Chair of the House Oversight Committee who is demanding Comey's memos?  So, apparently, he is stepping down at the end of next month rather than waiting until the end of the term, and some are trying to push him out of the Oversight Committee even before that.  I'm sure that's a total coincidence, right?  Right?!



*What, you thought I'd get through a long post about politics and witchcraft without mentioning her?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

None of the Trump scandals necessarily preclude policymaking, but...

Just a quick note, but it is worth pointing this out.  Congress doesn't seem to be working very hard on much of anything, either in terms of healthcare or tax policy, or anything else.  If you ask around, the general explanation is that Trump's scandals just overshadow everything.

Here's the thing.  There is no logical connection between Trump's scandals and the legislative process.  None of Trump's craziness stops legislators from drafting or introducing legislation, none of it stops committees from marking it up, none of it stops the floor from debate or amendment, etc.

You will read analogies between the legislative process and political oxygen being taken up, or some such nonsense, but things don't work that way.  Very few people in Congress are actually devoting their time to the Trump scandals.  What's really going on is simple fear-induced paralysis.

Whatever confidence congressional Republicans claim to have in Trump or how this will turn out, remember that.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Let's talk about impeachment

Jason Chaffetz, who is Chair of the House Oversight Committee, has been a stalwart defender of Trump, actively stonewalling as many investigations as possible on his behalf.

Remember those Comey conversations that Trump wasn't taping?  Comey was keeping notes and writing memos, and Chaffetz says he wants the memos.  If Chaffetz really is going to subpoena the memos, that means he isn't stonewalling for Trump anymore.  Oh, and Chaffetz isn't running for reelection, so he is also fearless right now.  Telling Comey to back off of the Flynn-Russia investigation, and then firing Comey for not backing off Russia?  Yeah, that's pretty clearly obstruction, and that's a felony.  It's impeachable.  It's time to start asking whether or not it will really happen.

The odds are against it, but let's talk about why.

Right now, if you head over to PredictIt, they've got it at roughly one in three that Trump is out by the end of the year, and 30% that Trump is impeached (with the difference being a voluntary resignation).  PredictWise has it at 27% that Trump leaves office this year.

I put the odds at the lower end, but we need to start asking these questions seriously.  This isn't about legality, though.  It's about politics.  In order for Trump to be impeached, you need articles of impeachment brought in the House, and then the Senate holds a trial, with a supermajority needed to convict.

The problem with the House is that it is a majority party institution.  You won't get any major action on anything in the House--almost ever-- without the consent of the Speaker.  If Republicans in the House support articles of impeachment, even if incriminating tapes emerge, it is because Paul Ryan didn't twist their arms not to do so.  And no matter how incriminating these hypothetical tapes are, there will be a bunch of batshit crazy people who say it's all a conspiracy and they can't give in to the liberal media and the lizard people, or whoever, and threaten to take down Paul Ryan if he doesn't pull out all the stops to block the articles of impeachment, no matter how bad Trump makes things for himself.  If Ryan can't stop those articles of impeachment, he doesn't have to lose very many rank-and-file Republicans before he gets Boehnered.  He'll certainly lose this guy...



And even if Ryan can't stop the articles of impeachment from passing, there's that pesky Senate trial.  Supermajority to convict.  2/3.  That's not easy.  Getting Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski?  Sure.  John McCain and his rent-boy, Lindsey Graham?  Maybe.  Jeff Flake's no fan.  Congratulations.  You're at 53.  14 more to go.  Getting to 67 in the Senate, no matter what the evidence is, would be a ridiculously hard slog.

So, what about 2018?  Trump scandals aren't going to stop any time soon, and Democrats, unless they are even dumber than Donnie-boy himself, should be able to capitalize.  They may even be able to take Congress.  They won't get to 67 in the Senate, but they could ease the burden.

However, even if they do so, the smarter thing to do, politically, is to leave Trump boxed in as a president who can't do anything legislatively, can't appoint anyone, and makes his party look so bad he hands everything to the Democrats in 2020.  Unless he burns the planet to a cinder in a temper tantrum before we get there.

So, impeachment?  Not likely.  Possible, but not likely.  Paul Ryan will have incentives to stop the articles from getting through the House to avoid getting Boehnered, and reaching 67 in the Senate means reaching some difficult targets.

But, it's time to start thinking through the possibilities.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Trump gave classified intelligence to the Russians-- we learn nothing about Trump

OMG!!!  Can you believe that Trump gave up classified information to the RUSSIANS!!! This is the MOST SHOCKING NEWS EVAAAAR!!!

Nope.  Sorry.  Can't do it.  I can't even pretend to be surprised.  In February, this gem of an article appeared in The Onion:  "FBI Panicking After Learning National Security Communications May Have Been Intercepted By Trump Administration".  So, here we are.  Over the weekend, in one of my cleansing rants, I suggested that we would forget about the Trump lie about taping the FBI director within a week because something newer and crazier would replace it.

I was worried he would bomb Albania, so really, let's call this a win.

Anyway, what do we learn?  Nothing.  If a story makes a three-month-old Onion joke look prophetic, we don't learn anything.  More to the point, I want to get back to the old question about whether or not Russia really has something on Trump.  No, we still haven't learned anything about that.

The basic problem for that has always been that Trump is personally disposed to cozy up to Putin because he worships Putin and wants Putin's approval.  The story, as it has been reported, is that Trump gave up classified intelligence, to... brag about how great his intelligence is.

It is, of course, perfectly plausible that he could give up classified intelligence to brag.  He is stupid enough to be tricked into sacrificing national security for the sake of personal bragging.  He could also give up national security secrets because he is being blackmailed.  Both stories are consistent with the data we have.  The basic problem continues to be what we call, "observational equivalence."

There.  Fancy jargon.  It is a term we use in social science for the situation in which two models generate the same prediction.  Trump is an idiot braggart.  Prediction?  He gives up national security secrets to the people he wants to impress, like the Russians.  The Russians have something on Trump.  Prediction?  He gives up national security secrets to the Russians.  Observational equivalence.

While I gave a Ben Bradlee-approved "holy shit!" to the Comey firing, this is completely unsurprising, and we learn nothing about Trump, including about the fundamental question:  is Trump influenced by the Russians.

From late December through early January, when there wasn't much going on (i.e., before Trump was inaugurated), I did a long series of posts under the "Assessing democracy..." heading.  Fundamentally, it was about the failure of the electorate to recognize Trump's lack of "valence" characteristics, like competence and honesty.  (I also made repeated references to Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which is now airing as a tv show).  What is interesting about this situation is that we can't tell if Trump's latest disaster comes from incompetence or dishonesty.  I'm not sure how much it matters.

But hey, at least he hasn't started nuking people.

Yet.

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

How about something from a region with less fucked-up politics than ours?  Like the Balkans?!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Explaining Republican unity around Trump right now

Before I went on that series of cathartic weekend rants, I was getting to a point about the strangeness of Republican incentives and the fact that they have mostly circled their wagons to block investigations of Trump.  As I pointed out on Thursday, they face a collective action problem, wherein any individual Republican actually has incentives to be the one Republican to break from the party and be the one to criticize Trump, given the likelihood of this whole thing coming apart.  On Friday, I connected it to the "mini-max" regret rule, which I originally used to try to defend Comey's decision to presidency-block Clinton, back in October.  What both of these posts suggest, though, is that Republicans shouldn't really be circling the wagons as effectively as they are.  So, why are they?

At some point in your life, you have known Blind Willie's blues.  At some point in many peoples' lives, though, the check engine light has come on, and they have done something like this:



Like I said yesterday, once upon a time, it was a great show.  Many people will disregard serious warning signs of problems with their cars.  Scary noises or warning lights.  Maybe they hope it is not a big deal, or maybe they just hope to make it to the next paycheck.  My first car used to make some noises that mechanics said were less worrisome than they sounded, and a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck.  And, mechanics do charge for their time, even if they don't fix anything, and if you really need to get to that next paycheck, then what do you do?

You can start to see the predicament of congressional Republicans in this light, then.  I have read conflicting assessments from lawyers on whether or not Trump could be convicted on obstruction just for firing Comey, but the evidence of true collusion with Russia, at this point, is only circumstantial.  It is clearly enough to warrant a full investigation, though-- a point only sincerely rejected by hardcore, rabid Trumpists with their heads twisted so far up their own asses that we should call them Mobius Trumpists.

The interesting ones are the ones putting tape over the check engine light.  If the car just breaks down, it will cost more in the long run, but if they are hoping to make it to the next paycheck (or election), then one can see the rationale for stonewalling any investigation.  Yes, it could backfire, and yes, it has an element of denial to it, but with limited resources, it could even be rational.  It's all about trying to run out the clock.

Here are the considerations:

1)  Probability of disaster before the clock runs out (p)
2)  Cost of fixing the disaster before the clock runs out (f)
3)  Cost of the disaster happening before the clock runs out (c)

It's actually kind of a simple calculation.  If pc < f, then try to run out the clock.  Most of the Republicans in Congress understand that Trump is a disaster.  They weren't exactly rushing to endorse the guy in the primary!  But, they hope to wait him out.  Yes, it will be costly, but taking the car in to the mechanic when it makes that noise?  They don't think they have the money.  They just want to make it to the next paycheck.

Here's the problem.  There's another analogy here.  You feel a lump.  Maybe it is metastatic and maybe it isn't.  If it is, the longer you wait, the more likely that lump is to kill you.  We could also go with the risks of a lethally infectious and contagious disease.  The potential dangers here are more serious than just a car crapping out on you at a quiet intersection in a tiny town.  Just days ago, Trump was touting James Clapper as the guy who exonerated him.  Over the weekend, Clapper not only called bullshit on that, he said that Trump is putting the Republic in danger.

This is far worse than Homer Simpson putting some tape over the check engine light, apt though the analogy may be.

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

We are all Frank Grimes right now (or at least, some of us are)

I promise that I will get back to regular, political science-filled analysis with lots of bleep-worthy language and obscure sci-fi references this week, but I just need to do one more rant.  (I was getting to a point, and a reader called me on the fact that I seemed to stop before making that point.  I'll get there.)  I just need to do this, though.

This post will obviously make somewhat more sense if you are at least a little familiar with The Simpsons.  Once upon a time, it was a great show.

Homer Simpson is a grotesquely stupid, reckless and irresponsible person who somehow came to hold a position of responsibility over fissile nuclear material.  One wrong move from Homer Simpson and a nuclear catastrophe could cost a lot of lives.  Is Homer qualified for that job?  Not even remotely, and pretty much everyone seems to know it.  Does it bother them?  Strangely, no.  He bungles from disaster to disaster, always making his worst traits evident to anyone willing to pay even the slightest amount of attention, and yet nobody seems to be willing to remove him from the position that actually should require some basic understanding of the job itself, as well as traits like intelligence, stability and personal responsibility.

One man notices not just how dangerous it is for everyone to have Homer Simpson hold this job, but how blinkered everyone in Springfield seems to be for their nonchalance at Homer's ineptitude, the danger in which it places them, and the baffling level of personal success that Homer seems to have enjoyed throughout his life despite the fact that Simpson can barely pass the Turing Test.

That man was Frank Grimes.



Frank Grimes, or, "Grimey," as he liked to be called, was the one Springfield resident driven insane with righteous indignation at Homer's place in Springfield.  Of course, he died tragicomically, with everyone else standing around baffled as to why Grimey didn't love Homer the way they did, and why he didn't embrace Homer's reckless stupidity the way they did.

Truly, though, Grimey was the only one who noticed just how much danger Springfield was in because of how recklessly stupid the guy with power over nuclear fissile material was.  And it drove him nuts because nobody else seemed to be willing to notice or care.

Does anybody else feel like Frank Grimes right now?

Of course, one could have done a joke about Rick Perry as Secretary of Energy, who has responsibility to oversee the nukes.  Perry is an idiot, who put on glasses to look smarter after his "oops" moment, bringing to mind this bit, when Homer fished Henry Kissinger's glasses out of a toilet.



I am obviously not talking about Perry, though.  When pointing out how stupid, incompetent and all-around vile Donald Trump is, and how much danger he places us all in, how do we not look like Frank Grimes?  I don't know.  That's a problem.

So, here's more Drive-By Truckers, because you can never have too much of them.

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

From the fringes of bluegrass...

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Putting the latest Trump news in context and perspective

I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

Read my lips, no new taxes.

If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.

I could keep going, but you probably get what I'm doing here.  I'm listing presidency-defining bullshit of various forms.  Clinton, Poppy Bush and Barack Obama were all basically normal politicians, though, and one of the points I have tried to make repeatedly is the irony that while "politician" is often used as a slur, it is our non-politician President who makes them all look scrupulously honest.

So now, Donnie Trump has intimated that he has recordings of a conversation with the FBI director, whom he has fired for investigating the Russia scandal, and tacitly threatened to release those recordings because they supposedly make Comey look bad and vindicate Trump.

One of two things is the case:  either Trump records conversations in the White House, and we are going down Nixonian roads again, or he doesn't.  The more likely scenario is that there are no such recordings.  This is probably just Trump being a belligerent asshole liar on twitter.  Again.

Now, think about how the false intimation of recording the FBI director in these circumstances would rank, relative to "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."  For any normal politician, this kind of bullshit would be presidency-defining.  We would talk about this one event, endlessly, and it would be the one thing that everyone remembers about President Pussy-grabber.  Oh, wait.  You start to see where I'm going with this.

If there are no recordings, as is likely, this will fade into the background, and we will forget about it as more and more batshit crazy news continues to come out because politics in the Trump era is a non-stop cavalcade of batshit craziness on a scale so unimaginable before that an incident like this-- an incident that would be presidency-defining for anyone else-- will just fade into the background amidst the din of other lunacy and whatever insane lies Trump tells next week, or hell, maybe he bombs the shit out of some country to try to distract everyone, and I'm not even joking about that.

Yes, Trump made what is probably a false intimation of recording the FBI director, whom he fired for investigating his campaign, in order to threaten to keep him quiet, and that constitutes such a minor level of craziness in this era that it will probably fade into the background by next month.  Unless the recordings are real, and we really are going through the first stages of something way worse than Watergate this early in a presidency.  Probably, though, this is just par for the course on Mar-a-Lago.

Absorb that.

So now, I'm going to try a writer's trick.  I'm going to borrow (steal) a trick used by Charles Stross a lot, although I've seen Neal Stephenson and others use it too.  Set up a bunch of truly bonkers plot points, where each step makes things crazier and crazier such that you don't necessarily think about just how insane things have gotten until the climax of the sequence, at which point the author (again, frequently Stross) gives you a paragraph or two laying out the WTF.  I wish I had the gift of fluid prose that such authors have, but hey, at least I can do math, right?  Wait, you mean Stross can do math too?  Fuck.  That's not fair.  Moving on...  (What's with these engineer types who can write?  Andy Weir?  Really?  Fuck you.  How dare you people be good at all of these things?  Oh, yeah, I was moving on...)

The Russian government hacks the DNC's emails, and strategically releases them in order to embarrass Clinton, and help Donald Trump win the presidential election.  As this happens, Trump asks the Russian government to do more hacking while suggesting that he wouldn't defend our NATO allies from Russian attacks, despite the fact that they came to our defense after 9/11 the only time the treaty has ever been invoked.  The Russian government was making repeated secret contacts with members of the Trump campaign and inner circle, while Trump remained the only presidential candidate in modern history not to release his tax returns, despite his extensive business dealings.  Shortly before the election, the Director of the FBI violated DoJ policy by announcing that the FBI was re-opening an investigation into Clinton's campaign despite the fact that policy mandated no public announcements that could affect a campaign too close to an election, and having been warned not to make a public announcement, and despite the fact that the newly discovered "evidence" had absolutely no chance whatsoever of actually changing the FBI's recommendation not to seek charges.  The FBI Director thereby found himself working alongside the Russian government to elect Trump, which he did.

Upon Trump's election, his inner circle continued contacts with the Russian government, at least some of which were illegal (Flynn's violation of the Logan Act), and the people surrounding Trump repeatedly lied about their levels of contact with the Russians, under oath, which currently have his AG recused from formal involvement in any related investigation, having been one of the people who lied under oath about contacts with Russia.  Trump knowingly appointed a National Security Advisor who could have been blackmailed by Russia for involvement with them, some of which was financial, and Trump had to fire that NSA within three weeks, but only did so because it became public-- Trump apparently didn't care that Flynn was caught lying and was vulnerable to blackmail by Russia.  Amid all of this, the FBI director who intervened in the campaign to elect Trump, alongside the Russian government, started to get cold feet about what he had done, possibly because of the "dossier" provided at some point by the former MI6 agent suggesting that the Russians might have actual blackmail material on Trump himself, so he started to investigate the Russia-Trump connections.  Trump, "pissed" about this, fired Comey to block the investigation, lied about why he fired Comey, tried to pin the blame for the firing on some lower-level schmuck, and is now trying to figure out how to find other ways to quash the Russia investigation.  And Congress won't do anything about this because Congress is controlled by the same party as the President, and they are concerned more about protecting themselves from the electoral losses that would result from uncovering scandalous information than they are about actual treachery.

And this is about a President who got his start in politics by spreading an insane, disgusting, racist, batshit crazy fucking lie that the previous President was born in Kenya in order to appeal to racist, inbred, illiterate fucking hick pieces of fucking shit.

This is where we are.

There is a real place for a coalition that argues rationally for smaller government, consistently.  There is a real place for a coalition that argues for "conservatism" in the cautious, Oakeshott sense.  We don't have either.  We have something that needs the literary skill of an author like Charles Stross to describe just how nuts things have gotten.  And we have only just barely crossed the 100 day marker.  That likely non-existent tape?  You see my point about how it will probably fade into the background, and how we need to understand how insane it is that something so crazy could fade into the background.

In a normal presidency, the false intimation of recording the FBI director and threatening him with that non-existent recording?  That would be presidency-defining.  For Trump?  Pretty soon, we'll move on.  Absorb how terrifying that is.

Unless there is a recording.  I don't even know which thought is scarier anymore.