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.


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.


... 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...


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.


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.

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

Today is all about context and perspective.  It has been a while since I have used the Drive-By Truckers, so today, it is time to remind everyone what kind of thing used to constitute a presidential scandal.  Also, these guys are fucking awesome.  And yes, they really named their second album "Pizza Deliverance!"

Friday, May 12, 2017

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

Too... many... choices...  Fuck it.  Since everything is weird and surreal right now, have some weird, surreal fusion.  Besides, there are so many things I could say about flammable rivers...

The "mini-max" regret rule and investigating Trump

Back when Comey first decided to hand the Presidency to Trump with that bullshit about the re-opened investigation into Clinton's emails, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt with this post about the "mini-max" regret rule.  It is time to revisit that rule for what it would suggest about Republican congressional action here, and why that isn't happening, continuing on the theme of yesterday's post.

The "mini-max" regret rule is a not-quite-utility-maximization rule that says you do the following: ask yourself, what is the maximum amount of regret you might feel about the choices you might have made, after all the dust settles?  Make the choice that minimizes that.

This rule comes about as a solution to the fact that it is irrational for you to vote.  No, I don't give a flying fuck if everyone thought that way because that isn't the issue.  You only choose for yourself, and when you try to change the subject by switching from one person to multiple people, you are implicitly accepting the premise that I am right, and just don't want to come to grips with the reality of that fact.  Tough shit.  Voting is irrational.  Deal with it.  The probability that you will swing the outcome of an election is lower than the probability of being killed in a traffic accident on the way to the polling place.  If you vote, you are being irrational.  Your vote will not affect the outcome of the election, unless you are voting in some small, podunk local election that doesn't matter anyway, in which case there aren't any cars anyway, so there's nothing to fear.  You don't matter.  Then again, neither do I.

Yet, lots of people vote, and a lot of people are uncomfortable with the reality that voting is irrational, so rat-choice scholars (yes, that's the term) have tried to rescue the act of voting from the depths of irrationality with pseudo-economic tricks.  One such trick is the "mini-max" regret rule.  How badly would you feel if the candidate you hated won by one vote, and you hadn't voted?*  Pretty shitty, right?  Voting is a relatively low-cost activity, so you vote in order to minimize that maximum regret.  Mini-max regret.

What would this suggest for Republicans in Congress right now?  This is sort of the same situation for them that I argued Comey was in, as far as the mini-max regret rule, back in October.  I have since updated my assessments of Comey, but the basic point is that the worst case scenario for congressional Republicans is that Trump really is deeply in bed with Russia, and that he fired Comey to cover it up, and that congressional Republicans are helping Trump cover everything up by refusing to investigate, and that a real smoking gun will eventually come out, like a recording of a phone conversation between Trump and whatever Russian spook recruited him where Trump admits to everything.  That kind of thing could bring down the whole fucking party.

As I suggested yesterday, the best way for individual Republicans to ensure that they survive whatever the fallout may be here is not to play along with Trump, and instead to call for a full investigation.  That is what the mini-max regret rule would suggest.  The fact that we are seeing so little of that here is telling.

Again, more to come...

*Technically, your vote here would have resulted in a tie, and the procedure in this case depends on institutional rules.  Similarly, the effect if your abstention had resulted in a tie depends on institutional rules, but the point is that your vote, in this unlikely event, is the difference between certainty and uncertainty.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Republicans circling the wagons around Trump and the collective action problem

Right now, things are looking pretty bad for Trump.  In response to yesterday's post, there was a bit of a thread on what makes for a "constitutional crisis," and my response was a situation in which there is a problem that the constitutional system cannot handle, like if Trump fired Comey to cover up the Russia stuff, and Congress won't do anything about it.


Yeah.  Kinda looks like we've got confirmation already.  I honestly thought it would take longer, and be more difficult, but by the end of the day yesterday, there were so many different confirmations that Trump was furious with Comey over Russia that while I don't know how to assess the current state of evidence in terms of legal thresholds, we've crossed the line of constitutional crisis, in my opinion, if Congress continues to do nothing, as is likely.  Firing the Director of the FBI in retaliation for, or in order to block an ongoing investigation is obstruction of justice.

So why won't Congress act?  The simplistic answer is that a Republican majority doesn't want to hurt a Republican President.  When (the) Watergate broke, the whole Republican Party suffered in the 1974 midterm election, and it probably helped Carter in '76.  The party's reputation took a hit that lasted for years.  Yes, Trump is crooked, but if Republicans help cover up whatever he has done, they may be able to preserve something of the party's reputation by preventing the worst from happening.  Here's the problem, though.  It is risky for any one Republican to participate.

This kind of thing gets into what we call, in social science, "the collective action problem," coming from Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action.  There is some "public good," from which everyone benefits, but which requires lots of people to contribute.  Any one person's contribution is basically irrelevant.  Therefore, it is irrational for any one person to contribute, so nobody contributes, so the good doesn't get provided.  That's the collective action problem.

In this case, we can think of the wagons circled around Trump as a kind of collective good.  The Republican Party needs everyone, or at least a lot of Republicans, to act as though Trump is no more corrupt than any other politician and that any criticism is just partisan smoke being blown.  That way, the party can weather most storms by convincing the uninformed audience that there's nothing to see here, folks, move along.

The problem is that this might be a storm too big to weather, and if so, the benefit of being one of the Republicans who doesn't rally around Trump could be big.  There are real incentives here for individual Republicans to not join the wagon circle.  Collective action problem...

If Trump is compromised by Russia, and he did fire the FBI director for looking into the connections, then this is, by far, the biggest scandal in US history, and any Republican who helps cover it up may go down with Trump.  That could be a party-destroying scandal.  The Republicans who stand against the party could be the ones who weather the storm.  If Trump is doomed, on the other hand, the party's best chance to survive is to turn on him completely, knowing that it will just lose the next couple of elections and take some time to recover, as it did after Nixon.

Some Republicans are breaking from the party and calling for more serious investigations here.  I wonder how this shakes out, but it is kind of interesting that more aren't turning on Trump yet.  More to come...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Comey firing (what else?!)

My dissertation advisor, Nelson Polsby, used to tell a story.  Lots of stories, but one in particular comes to mind at times like this.  The former executive editor of the Washington Post, Ben Bradlee, used to say that he wanted people to open up the newspapers every morning (remember those things?) and say, "holy shit!"  In order to get that to happen, they would call us, the professoriate, to get a few choice quotes for their stories.  They would say, "holy shit, right prof, holy shit?"  And, Nelson would say, it was our job to tell them, "no, not holy shit, this is normal and expected and here's why this is exactly what happens on a regular basis," or something to that effect.



The Trump era is so filled with true "holy shit" moments that we are in danger of becoming inured to them, but really:  HOLY SHIT!!!

So, when Comey introduced the first real October surprise that ever measurably switched an electoral outcome, I put up a few posts parsing his motives.  First, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt with this post, arguing that the "mini-max regret rule" would push him to release the information about the re-opened Clinton investigation in October.  A few days later, I argued that a better predictor of Comey's general behavior was whatever would screw over Clinton, and the investigation even went back to his bizarre decision to castigate her during the initial announcement not to prosecute, while trying to usurp that whole thing from the AG.  Basically, yeah, the investigation looked at his overall behavior, and combined that with his latest lies about the Abedin/Weiner computer, and it really does look like he was just out to get Clinton.  Gotta agree.  That was my conclusion based on Mill's Methods, last year.

Is that the real reason Trump fired him?  Clearly no.  Does the phrase "lock her up" ring a bell?  Yeah, Trump isn't going to fire Comey for going too hard after Clinton.

When I first got news of the firing and the investigation into Comey, I had to re-read the story a couple of times, thinking I had mis-read it.  I thought that the investigation must have concluded that Comey was wrong to not seek charges, and that's why Trump fired him.  That would have made sense, given the whole "lock her up" thing.  Trump can't seriously be pissed off about what the investigation actually concluded.  He can't.  Yes, Comey was WAY THE FUCK OUT OF LINE.  In SO many ways.  But that isn't why Trump fired him.

Is this really about Russia?  Who the hell knows?  This isn't something that political science can really help with here.  I hate to say it, but we need....  damn, this kills me to type it... journalists here.  Real, old-fashioned, investigative journalism, of the type that has been pushed aside by a combination of laziness and market forces.  Get to work, journalists.

If this is about Comey looking into Russia...




Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Interpreting Sally Yates's testimony

Yesterday, Sally Yates testified that "we believed that General Flynn was compromised."  The rest, well, we already knew.  He was taking money from Russia, meeting with the Russians, etc., and it took a hell of a long time for Trump to fire Comrade Flynn.  For all of the "Trump is a Russian stooge" hypotheses floating around, let's review all of the possibilities remaining:

1)  Yup, Trump could be a Russian stooge.  The "dossier" (or at least, the non-salacious parts) have a reasonable possibility of being true, and we know that Russia tries to get blackmail material on everyone.  Remember that all they would need to blackmail Trump is to get their hands on some of his more interesting tax returns.  Combine that with his natural affinity for Putin, and hey, what are a few cruise missiles between friends?  If that's what's going on, Trump would be fine with Flynn around because they'd be in the same boat.

2)  Trump ignored the warnings because he just has a personal affinity for batshit crazy conspiracy theorists, which is what Flynn is.  Trump isn't what you would call an "evidence" kind of guy.  Show him evidence that Flynn was being controlled by Russia and he wouldn't really care, as long as Flynn spouted some really out-there shit about Obama, muslims, chem-trails, vaccines and, hell, let's throw in Slenderman.

3)  Trump ignored the warnings because he discounted the messengers.  It wasn't just Yates, but Obama personally who told the guy that Flynn couldn't be trusted, making it extra-wacko that Trump is still trying to pin the Flynn mess on Obama, but if Trump just discounts everything Obama and anyone associated with him says (not an "evidence" kind of guy), then whatever they say, and whatever evidence they provide, won't mean anything.

4)  Trump hates backing down.  Once Flynn was in Trump's orbit, to kick him out in response to Yates and Obama and the others telling him that the guy was compromised would be an admission of error, and Trump can't do that.  EVER.  That's why, even now, he's blaming Obama for him (Trump) having hired a guy as National Security Advisor that Obama told him not to hire.

Yes, we can still tell a story about how this fits in with the Trump-is-Putin's-bitch hypothesis, and the Syria bombings don't completely debunk that since things have calmed down on that front (something I posed as a possibility if Trump is in Putin's back pocket in April).  However, there are a lot of other possibilities here.  We still don't know what the deal is with Putin and Trump.  Flynn?  Yeah, that guy is probably crooked in addition to being absolutely batshit fucking crazy, and Trump was an idiot to hire him as well as way too slow to fire him, but we still don't have a clear picture of what is going on here.  That's the problem with trying to analyze a stupid person.  There are always too many possibilities for how stupidity works.

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

Pretty soon, I'm going to exhaust my knowledge of Russian music...

Monday, May 8, 2017

Coalition politics and the next steps in "repeal-and-replace"

It's still finals week here, but time for a homework assignment.  William Riker's The Theory of Political Coalitions.  I'd link to it on Amazon, but it is out of print, and they are charging absurd amounts for it, so go ahead and, well, never mind.

Anyway, yes, his name was William Riker.

Game theorists get all the chicks.  Man, though, he did not age well.  Anywho, one of Commander Riker's more famous books, written shortly before firing on Locutus of Borg, was The Theory of Political Coalitions.  Key idea-- the minimal winning coalition.  Any game in which policy proposals will be constructed and then voted upon has a variety of coalitions that could potentially be observed, depending on the policy proposals that are put forth.  Strategically, though, it doesn't make sense to propose anything that will get any more than the bare minimum that you need to win because then you will be distributing benefits to more people than you need.  If the winning threshold is 50%+1, then keep as much as possible for 50%+1.  If you do anything to win an extra vote, you are throwing resources away to win that extra vote that you don't need when you could have kept those resources within a smaller coalition.  Why share when you don't have to?  That's the logic.

Observationally, we rarely see House votes of 218 to 217 (a fully-seated House has 435 members), and plenty of people have tackled that problem.  The basic answer is that, when constructing a policy, you always have some uncertainty, so build in some leeway.

I'm going to be referencing Riker a lot as we go through this, but the key problem for the Senate is that the GOP has 52 seats.  They can lose two votes, leaving Mike Pence to cast the tie-breaking vote, and still have something pass.  The minimal winning coalition argument says that they should lose two votes.  That would be Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.

I've been saying for a while that they are the key players here, but I think they may be lost votes no matter what, given the Freedom Caucus's demands.  Here's the real problem for the GOP.  Neither are alone.  Collins worked with Bill Cassidy on a competing bill, before the Freedom Caucus ever started on anything, and Murkowski signed a letter along with Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito and Cory Gardner saying they hate our Freedom.  Caucus bill.  If this were a simple Riker problem of managing the minimal winning coalition, then the GOP would just kick Collins and Murkowski out of the coalition by ignoring their demands and be done with it in order to try to keep the Freedom Caucus happy now.  Maybe it would work, and maybe it wouldn't, but it isn't that simple.  Not after Collins pulled Cassidy into another bill, and not after Murkowski joined with Portman, Garner and Capito.

This is far from over.

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

Hey, that nice-seeming Hitler lady lost the run-off in France!  Awwwww!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The FCC, Stephen Colbert's "cock holster" joke, and taking offense

Oh, where to start here?

Apparently, everyone now hates Stephen Colbert.  Conservatives hate him because he picks on Dear Leader.  A segment of the left hates him because the particular form of a joke he made was "homophobic" (Trump's mouth is only fit to be Putin's "cock holster").  The FCC is going after him because that joke may have crossed some imaginary line that "society" has deemed uncrossable because the precious, little fucking snowflakes of America are horribly, horribly wounded if they ever hear anything through their precious, little earholes that doesn't comport with their delicate sensibilities.

I have had my own... problems over the years with people who don't share my view of language.  I will never use racial slurs, or anything of the kind.  Why not?  Because I'm not a fucking racist.  A racial slur is an attack on an entire group of people based on racial stereotypes with a threat either implied or sometimes made explicit.  There are times in comedy when a slur can be used.  The n-word got used in Blazing Saddles, and it was both appropriate and funny.  Co-written by Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, yeah, they can do that.  But I'm not gonna use racial slurs.  But, fuck yeah, I'll say, "fuck" all I fucking well please because nobody has ever been able to present me with a similarly compelling reason not to do so.  And when people have tried, I have often told them to go fuck themselves since their reasoning always fell back on "because society says so," which I don't find compelling.

I also have a very dark sense of humor, and tell jokes that many people think cross the line of good taste, whatever that means.  Every semester, at some point, I look across the faces of my students and ask, "was that the most offensive joke I've told all semester?"  The students agree that, yes, that one was the most cold-blooded, heartless, tasteless and all-around off-putting thing I have said.

From now on, I'm going to write down these jokes for a cross-semester comparison.  I would like a written record, for my own benefit.  I'm going to see if I can up my game from semester to semester.  One needs to set goals for one's self.

Let's get into this, though.  If you're reading this pretentious, little blog, you already know what I think of "profanity."  In short, I fucking love it.  I was raised on George Carlin!  Let's start with the FCC and rules on "decency."  Note the quotation marks, because I don't buy this despicable fucking bullshit.

Yeah, I use a lot of words derived from the Germanic.  "Shit," for example is rooted in Germanic.  "Feces," in contrast, is rooted in Latin.  "Shit" is the "obscene" word, whereas "feces" is the "scientific" word.

THAT IS NOT A FUCKING COINCIDENCE!  That is exactly how the history of language worked.  English came about as a hybrid of Germanic and Latin-rooted languages, which is why it is such a fucking mess.  However, Latin was the language that the upper-class learned.  The rabble?  Nope.  No school for them.  Now, combine that with taboos on bodily functions and sexuality and you've got a problem.  You can't purge the language entirely of all references to these things, 'cuz, well, you gotta reference 'em, but the upper-class wanted to distinguish themselves from the lower-class.  They did it by using the Latin-based terms, which the lower-class never learned.  So, "shit" becomes a lower-class identifier because the lower-class never learns Latin, and doesn't pick up the highfalutin versions of the concepts that everyone will, at some point, need to reference.  Over time, the taboo turns into an absolute societal ban on the word, rooted in economic class.

"Fuck."  Germanic.  "Cunt."  Germanic.  There's your big three in terms of taboo words that aren't racial slurs.  "Vulgarity" exists in other languages, of course, but within English, avoiding it is generally about economic class and talking like a rich person when using a synonym for the same damned concept (and trying to find a highfalutin word for a bodily function or something having to do with sex).

Now, what does this have to do with taking offense?  If you are offended by one of the taboo words, you are offended only because people told you that you are supposed to get offended.  "Shit" and "feces" are synonyms.  Period.  If you are offended by one and not the other, it is because you were told to get offended by one of them, and like a mindless fucking automaton, you have done so.  If so, something is very wrong with your thought processes.

And that brings us to the general concept of taking offense, because Colbert's "offense" wasn't precisely the Germanic word in his joke, although "cock," as used here, is probably rooted in Germanic.  The etymology of "cock" as a word for penis isn't clear (fortunately, I need to use a VPN to search the Oxford English Dictionary anyway...), but it is probably Germanic.  Still, Colbert is getting DP-ed here* only partly because of that.  He made a joke that Trumpists don't like because they can't take jokes about Dear Leader any more than he can take jokes about himself (which is, obviously, not at all).  So, they focus on the word, "cock," feigning injury as a way to get at the guy ripping into their hero.  Then, you've got a smaller cadre of lefties who don't like the joke because they don't actually have a real sense of humor.  They like to laugh at their enemies, but there's nothing certain lefties like more than policing one of their own for violations of political correctness.

Let's be clear here-- this isn't all of the left, but do a quick search for "Stephen Colbert homophobic joke," and you'll get a bunch of stuff because there is a segment of the left whining about the "cock holster" joke claiming homophobia.

Yup, we're getting into Trump's attacks now.  Trump is a racist, misogynistic piece of fucking shit.  When called on it, he derides the criticism as "political correctness," and the problem with what's going on with Colbert now is that it lends credence to Trump because the left is so concerned with policing its own side for any minor violation of their rules that for someone not paying close attention, it really would be credible to conclude that any given attack on Trump is just a bunch of precious little fucking snowflakes who can't take a joke because... well... there are people on the left who can't take a fucking joke.

Otherwise, they wouldn't be going after one of their own-- namely, Stephen Fucking Colbert.  He told a joke.  A quick perusal of Stephen Colbert's record of jokes on LGBTQ issues shows that he is very staunchly on the side of the LGBTQ community.  One of his regular bits on The Colbert Report was to pretend to be an anti-gay social conservative, and then drool over shirtless photos of Matthew McConaughey.  The implication?  Anti-gay social conservatives, like the character he was playing, are just in the closet and in denial.  This was a regular thing for him, and that's just a small piece of his record.  Go through the guy's record.  Anyone offended by the cock holster joke-- he's on your fucking side!  If you can't take that kind of joke, then you are exactly what gives Trump the credence to make the comments he does about political correctness to get away with his actual racist, misogynistic vileness.

And this isn't even the first time for Colbert.  Back when he was doing The Colbert Report, he had a bit making fun of racism and how racists would do fake, pseudo-apologies.  The trouble is, how do you do that without making the racist comment first?  Colbert did it brilliantly.  He would never do the racist bit in the first place.  He would pretend that the bit had happened, and then just do the fake apology.  So, he pretended that he had a character he did-- Ching Chong Ding Dong-- a really offensive Chinese stereotype.  He would never actually do a bit as Ching Chong Ding Dong.  Instead, he would pretend that he had done the character (and pre-record something as CCDD), and then on the show, do an apology for the bit that never actually aired in the first place.  Brilliant!  That way, he gets to make fun of fake apologies without having to put on a racist bit, unaccompanied by the apology.  The all-time best?  Making fun of the Washington Redskins not changing their name, and the owner creating a charity with the name, "Redskins" in it.  Colbert pretended to create the "Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation For Sensitivity To Orientals, Or, Whatever" as an apology for an un-aired bit.

Some precious little fucking snowflake idiot caught wind of the "Foundation" without checking into the full bit and started a "cancel Colbert" effort because she thought he was racist, without realizing that the whole thing was making fun of racists and their pseudo-apologies.  And she didn't back down when she found out what the joke was.

Then, there's Ani DiFranco.  Great musician.  She wanted to put together a music camp thing.  She lives in New Orleans.  Everything near New Orleans has some connection to slavery.  It's the fucking South.  Someone complained about the location.  She decided to add an event about songwriting to deal with issues of social injustice.  She's Ani Fucking DiFranco!  That still didn't satisfy the precious, little snowflakes who forced her to cancel the event.

This is a normal thing with a segment of the left.  When they go after people like Stephen Colbert and Ani DiFranco because they are so interested in policing their own allies, they don't even know what their goals are.

As I have said many times before, my real heroes are people like George Carlin and Frank Zappa.  Colbert told a joke.  That's it.  Rant over.  People should stop worrying about their precious, little earholes, but I'll leave you with this today.

*No, I'm not apologizing for this.  Like Colbert's line, it's a joke.

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The incoherent beliefs of the Freedom Caucus

Time to pick on some old grad school colleagues-- Dave Hopkins and Matt Grossman.  They have been making some waves for a while with an argument that Republicans have gotten more ideologically extreme over the last few decades in Congress because they and their base care about ideological purity, whereas Democrats are basically a coalition of interest groups who make policy compromises.  I have picked on this argument before because I just don't believe it, and never really did.  {cough, cough... Trump...}  They have a book coming out soon on Oxford, and when it's out, I'll link to it when I pick on them, but I'll still call bullshit on the argument.

Anyway, I've been wading through a lot of the ridiculousness of the House healthcare vote, and it strikes me as a demonstration of the ideological incoherence of the Freedom Caucus, and their, dare I type it... impurity.  You see, here's how Obamacare dealt with pre-existing conditions:  insurers had to cover people with them, without charging customers higher rates.  That's regulation.  Conservatives hate regulation.  Regulation is bad, m'kay?  Oh, wait, they like those regulations.  Fuck.  Never mind.

Where was I?  Oh, right.  Regulation.  Conservatives hate regulation.  Except the regulations they like.  But not the Obamacare regulations, 'cuz those are the bad regulations, m'kay?  So, fine, regulation is bad.

You know what else is bad?  Taxation for the purposes of redistribution.  That's bad.  OK.  Got it.

Which is worse?  Redistribution or regulation?



Now, if you listen to conservative rhetoric, you'd probably walk away with the idea that redistribution is worse.  The conservative rhetoric on taxation often equates it with theft, and equates the recipients of redistributed money with layabouts, and there is no "pledge" on the Republican side against "regulation" that compares to the Grover Norquist pledge against raising taxes.

Yes, conservatives hate regulation (except the regulations they like) and hate redistribution, but I think you would be hard-pressed to make the case that they hate regulation more than they hate redistribution.  So, if forced to choose a lesser of two evils, they should choose regulation over redistribution, right?

That isn't what the Freedom Caucus did!  They did the exact opposite.  The Obamacare method of dealing with pre-existing conditions was regulation-- insurers had to cover individuals with pre-existing conditions without charging more.  The FreedomCaucusCare method?  Let states opt out of that regulation, and instead, create high risk pools, funded with taxpayer money.  That's redistribution.  The Freedom Caucus chose redistribution over regulation.

Why?  They could defend it on the grounds that states choose rather than having the federal government choose, but as I have written many times before, I don't think that anyone really has that strong a commitment to abstract concepts like "states' rights."  After all, ask these same people what they think about legalization of drugs at the state level.  Or euthanasia.  They are conservatives, not libertarians.  If they could outlaw all abortions at the federal level, they would.  Again, they are conservatives, and their commitment to "states' rights" is, like everyone in history who has ever used the phrase, a bullshit cover.

No, the real reason they preferred redistribution to regulation is...  they weren't thinking about what they were doing.  They rushed this thing through with no planning, no consideration, no study, no nothin'.  All they knew is that it wasn't Obamacare.  Yes, their commitment to hating Obamacare was so strong that it made them choose redistribution over regulation even though any serious examination of conservative ideology would lead one to think that regulation is the lesser evil within the substance of the ideology itself.

Why?  Because the Freedom Caucus isn't really about ideological purity.  I don't even think they understood what they were doing.  They were just lashing out.  That still says something important about the notion that the rightward movement in the Republican Party is motivated by the drive towards ideological purity, and I'm still callin' bullshit on that.

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

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

Maybe not, but regardless...

How should journalists cover the House vote on repeal-and-replace?

Yesterday morning, I posted something that was just the tiniest-bit-snarky about how the Republicans' efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare are still facing tough odds because the House isn't the hard part.  The Senate is, and if Republicans had this tough a time with the House, they're not in a very strong position.  Yet, to read the news coverage, you'd think they just had the greatest victory in the history of political victories!!!!  MORE EXCLAMATION POINTS AND ALL-CAPS!!!!

So, how should the press cover yesterday's vote?  There is the question of symmetry.  It was, in my opinion, rightly covered as a massive failure and embarrassment when Ryan had to cancel the initial repeal-and-replace vote, so does that mean that this must be a victory of equal magnitude when the House passes a bill?  No.  That completely misses the point.  It wouldn't have been a massive failure and embarrassment the first time around if it weren't for the fact that the House is supposed to be the chamber where the majority party gets its way.  That's the point I keep trying to beat into the ground.  In fact, right before the vote had to be canceled in March, I posted this explaining that Ryan should have had the votes to pass the thing based on strategic incentives, and I was left scratching my head trying to explain why he couldn't pull it off.

Pass the New York or California bar exam and you get to celebrate.  Pass your learner's permit test after failing it a couple of times and you didn't win a major victory.  You probably just got lucky that last time, and you really should be kept off the road anyway.  Hopefully, you'll be kept in one of those cars with a big "STUDENT DRIVER" sign on it so that the rest of us can steer clear.

Yes, that does mean that the proper sequence is to cover the canceled vote as a major failure, but not to cover this as a major win.  Because the Republicans are so very far from actually winning anything.  This was the easy part, and a) the bill that passed does nothing to demonstrate that Republicans have the capacity to find a bill capable of garnering the approval of both the House Freedom Caucus and the Senate moderates at the same time, which was always the real challenge, and b) they still don't even know how to manage Senate procedure on this given the challenge of dealing with the Byrd Rule on budget reconciliation.  The fact that Republicans are celebrating now shows one of several things:

1)  House Republicans don't care about a policy victory-- they just needed to pass the buck, so it doesn't matter if this goes nowhere now.
2)  They don't understand how hard the next steps are.
3)  This is about trying to garner media momentum in the misguided belief that it will help in the next step.
4)  The big victory is undoing the embarrassment of last time around.

These aren't mutually exclusive explanations, and there could be more going on, but from the media's perspective, it is important to understand that yesterday's House vote was not, by any real standard, a major victory because it just shouldn't have been that difficult, which was the point of yesterday's snarky post.  If I thought Ryan should have been able to pull this off in March (which I did), the fact that we are here now means that the Republicans are screwing up, not winning bigly.

Not that I'm trying to diminish Trump and Ryan's victory.  They made a boom boom!  We're SO PROUD of them!

Get back to me when Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Bill Cassidy, Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito and Cory Gardner are anywhere near being on the same page as the House Freedom Caucus.  Then I'll be impressed.

Quick thought for where this goes from here, and I'll elaborate later:  Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will personally be locked out of the room for any negotiation.  Dump trucks of money will be pulled up to every other waffling Republican Senator.  Odds still run against success, but that'll be the process.  More to come...