Thursday, August 31, 2017

A "once in a generation" opportunity for tax reform?

This line caught my attention.  Political science time!  Trump, in typical Trumpian fashion, asserted that right now, there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for tax reform.  I've written before about the technocratic case for true tax reform, which won't happen, but the sentiment here actually lets me talk about some debunked political science!

In 1955, a prominent political scientist named VO Key wrote a piece called "A Theory of Critical Elections."  With the benefit of hindsight, he was kind of writing out of his ass, but it was extremely influential ass-writing.  Basic idea:  every 30-40 years, there would be a "critical election," or, a "realignment," in which several things would happen.  There would be a change in power where one side would win a massive landslide electoral victory, the parties' social/geographic bases of support would change, and it would establish a new long-term system.  There's more, but I'm just writing a morning blog post.  Which were the critical elections?  1860, 1896, 1932, and then... and then... and then problems because there was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom.  Where's my earth-shattering kaboom?  You're making me very angry.

Regardless of that missing realignment which was supposed to happen, but didn't in the 1960s, the model was influential, and David Brady wrote a book called Critical Elections and Congressional Policy Making, arguing that these realignments had important policymaking consequences.  That's... kind of Trump's argument, actually.

Of course, Brady wrote before David Mayhew debunked this whole "realignment" bullshit with Electoral Realignments.  There were supposed to have been three main realignments:  1860, 1896, and 1932.  1860 was kind of unique, and Mayhew found that 1896 looked a whole lot less like a "realignment" by any quantitative measure than several other late-19th Century elections, so why the hell do political historians talk so much about it?  Kinda bullshit.

And the bigger joke, obviously, is that Trump didn't even win that landslide he loves to talk about.  There were a few states that flipped in 2016:  Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.  In recent electoral history, those had been Democratic states, which Trump won very, very narrowly, but to call that a realignment... no.  We still see the same basic demographic faultlines.

So, at the end of the day, no, this isn't an opportunity for tax reform at all.  This isn't an opportunity for major policymaking of any kind except for tax cuts.  Major policy changes happen these days when there is one party government with a cohesive majority.  That wasn't always the case, but it is now.  2008 wasn't a critical election.  Why not?  It didn't establish a long-term Democratic majority, and I warned a lot of people about that.  Also, the basic political demographics stayed similar to previous years.  A small shift handed power to the Dems because it moved just enough states in the electoral map, House and Senate, but the basic geographic and political demographics were pretty similar to previous years.  Major changes happened, though, because the majority party was unified.  2016 wasn't a critical election.  Major changes aren't happening now because the Republicans don't know what the fuck they are doing.  Tax reform is hard.  They can't do hard things, and don't really want to do hard things.  They'll pass some tax cuts set to expire in 10 years because budget reconciliation rules, which allow the Senate to bypass filibusters, can only increase the deficit for 10 years.  That's it.

I bet you didn't think I could write this much political science about a throw-away Trump line!

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Competing explanations for the Arpaio pardon

In yesterday's post, I wrote about Trump's decision to pardon Joe Arpaio in terms of partisan attitudes towards the police, although I could just as easily have written about attitudes towards immigration.  I just decided to do something a little less obvious.  However, reading the general commentary, I am amazed at how many commentators are convinced that Trump is actively thinking about sending signals to anyone who might cooperate with the Russia investigation that he will pardon anyone who protects him.

There once was a man named, "Occam," and he had a sharp thingie.

All other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be correct.  Trump is not big on long-term strategic planning.

1)  Trump has a personal affinity for Arpaio, so he pardoned the guy.

2)  Trump wants to keep witnesses quiet, so he found some hick sheriff, and pardoned him to send a signal.  That way, even though the hick sheriff had little to do with Trump, those associated with the President will feel like there is some sort of reciprocal loyalty thing.

In what way does 2 make more sense as an explanation for Trump's behavior than 1?

I'm going with my good buddy, Occam, here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The politics of the Arpaio pardon

I haven't written about the Arpaio pardon yet because Trump hid it amid the hurricane news, and despite denials, that was the point.  As others have commented, controversial pardons are generally done at the end of a president's term.  For example, when Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich-- a campaign donor-- for no reason other than payback as far as anyone could tell, he did it during the lame-duck period just before George W. Bush's inauguration.  Trump wasn't going to wait, but he wanted to minimize fallout, so he looked for an opportunity to hide the pardon amid bigger news, and that's really all there is to it.  And that's the point of why I haven't gotten to this yet.  There's been bigger stuff.

So let's deal with this "law and order" stuff.  "Law and order" is a slogan.  Also, a show that I never watched because it didn't have any sci-fi elements to it, so really, what was the point?  (Come on, it's in the title of the blog...)  The phrase, though, has historically been used in two specific ways.  There are the racial issues, and the way that it signals alliance with police.  They are, of course, related.  For now, though, I'll focus on the attitude towards cops.

Cops break the law.  How often you think they break the law will determine your attitude towards the cops, and whether or not you accept the premise that "law and order" means supporting the cops.  If cops are lawbreakers themselves, then true "law and order" means constraining the cops.  And this is a partisan issue.  In the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, we asked everyone to rate the police on a "feeling thermometer."  The scale goes from 0 to 100, with 0 being coldest, or most negative, and 100 being warmest, or most positive.  Now, we can make jokes about Celsius, and the freezing point and boiling point of water, and if you are one of my students, you may have heard me bash this scale before for having phony "precision" since nobody can reliably place themselves on a scale with this many gradations, but this is what we have.  Anyway, we also ask respondents to place themselves on a seven-point scale from "strong Democrat" to "strong Republican," and that scale is way, way better, and we use a branching method in the questions to ensure that respondents wind up on the right place on the scale.  So, what are the average feeling thermometer scores for the cops, for each category of partisanship?

Strong Democrat                                68
Weak Democrat                                  70
Independent, Leaning Democrat        68
Independent                                        69
Independent, Leaning Republican      80
Weak Republican                                81
Strong Republican                              87

So... see anything interesting there?  Democrats, regardless of strength of partisanship, put the cops at around 70.  Democrats basically like cops.  Control for race and those numbers would change, obviously, but I'm just doing the basic partisan breakdown.  Republicans?  Republicans fucking love the cops.  Particularly "strong Republicans."  The idea of a cop doing wrong, to a "strong Republican," is practically a non-sequitur.  You accuse a cop of wrong-doing, to a "strong Republican," and your argument doesn't even get a hearing.  Why?  Their feeling thermometer towards the cops is, on average, 87 on a 0-100 scale.  How high is that?  Ask "strong Republicans" to rate "christians," and in 2016, their average score was 89.  Only two points higher.  For fucking "christians."  (OK, it doesn't separate out fucking christians from non-fucking christians.  We don't bother to ask about "shakers," or any of that...).  Point being, it pretty much can't get higher than that.  Strong Republicans aren't even going to listen to arguments about police corruption or abuse of power.  Their feeling thermometer scores are just too high.

Now does it make sense why Trump pardoned Arpaio and why his supporters back him, even without any race issues?  (Procedural norms notwithstanding...)

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

Once again, I'm struggling to keep the Tuesday series on theme.  Sorry.  I didn't feel like posting a soothing raga after reading about that creepy rapist guru...  Instead, here's Swedish bassist Jonas Hellborg's "Child King," from Octave of the Holy Innocents.  Hellborg got his real shot playing with British fusion guitarist, John McLaughlin.  McLaughlin is best known as the guy from Mahavishnu Orchestra, but he came to fame in the jazz world as Miles's guitarist on Bitches Brew and my favorite fusion album, In a Silent Way.  Hellborg is joined here by guitarist, "Buckethead," who uses the moniker because he goes on stage with... a KFC bucket on his head.  That's one way to deal with stage fright, I guess.  He is a real virtuoso, though.  Oh, and Michael Shrieve?  Yeah, I suppose I could mention him.  I guess there is some American music here, but kind of Latino too, right?

Anyway, here's a weirdo Swedish bassist.

Monday, August 28, 2017

On competence: Storms, Dunning-Kruger, and the first day of school

Today is the first day of class here at Case Western Reserve University, and as is "tradition," or as close as there can be for a blog that hasn't been around very long, I try to do something vaguely relevant on that theme for the first day of class, although I also try to keep things t(r)opical.  Competence!  Or, lack thereof.

One of the ongoing themes since the 2016 campaign here has been the role of "valence."  Game theorists, like me, like to write about how voters combine policy preferences with preferences over "valence" characteristics, which are the traits that voters supposedly just want intrinsically, like competence and honesty.

Stop laughing.

This all goes back to a 1963 paper by Donald Stokes called, "Spatial Models of Party Competition."  Stokes argued that there are positional issues, where voters disagree about the outcomes they wish to achieve, and valence issues, where voters agree about the outcomes they want, like a strong economy, but disagree about how to get there.  That got morphed into valence "traits," which are the traits that voters want, like competence and honesty.  Sometimes scholarship is a big game of "telephone."

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how incumbents can be punished for natural disasters, and competence is actually relevant here because a competent incumbent may actually respond more effectively to a natural disaster, mitigating the effect.  George W. Bush was criticized for not responding effectively to Hurricane Katrina, in part because he did not have competent people in place at FEMA.  Instead, he had Michael Brown in charge.  Now, it's Trump's turn to face a brutal Hurricane, with Republicans like Senator Bob Corker acknowledging that Trump just isn't competent.  We'll have to wait to see how this plays out, though.

Of course, we all want to think that we are competent at everything, but many are prone to overestimating their own competence.  We call this the "Dunning-Kruger effect," based on a study called "Unskilled and Unaware of It," by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.  Basically, if you don't know what you are doing, you don't know how to assess whether or not you know what you are doing.  That's the short version of why everybody thinks that they are better-than-average drivers, which is a mathematical impossibility.

So, how do you know when you are good at something?  You need external measures.  When those external measures show success... great!  Focus on improving what is working.  When those external measures show failure... change something.  Everybody screws up.  Nobody is great at everything, and that is why we need external measures.

So, completely hypothetically, let's say you enter a new environment.  Let's say that in your previous environment, you had reason to think that you had been successful, perhaps even based on external measures, but this new environment is one in which things are different in many ways.  You don't necessarily know what to expect.  You many think you do, but you don't, and your previous skills may not necessarily translate.

1)  Don't ignore external measures.  If you don't seem to be succeeding (or, "winning"), maybe your previous skills aren't translating.

2)  That means course-corrections are in order.  Everyone fails once in a while.  The difference between the people who ultimately succeed and those who don't is that the former learn from their mistakes.  The true cases of Dunning-Kruger are the ones who either fail to recognize their failure, or attribute it to something other than their own screw-ups.  Very few people start at a level of competence.  You have to work at it, and that requires course-corrections.

3)  Recognizing when to do that requires external information.  One of the worst things you can do when you enter a new environment, then, is to close yourself off from any criticism in a little cocoon where you either never hear criticism or have your buddies tell you that any criticism is invalid.  Some criticism is invalid.  Not all is, and you need to learn from the valid criticism so that you can make course-corrections.

Nope, no political references there!

Anyway, welcome to a new (or first) year of college!  Or, to other readers, never mind.

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

I think I need to use at least two tracks today.  I don't like going with the obvious choice, but Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Texas Flood" is incredibly obvious, so I shouldn't use it, but it is so clear that I can't not use it.  So, I'll add something a little off the beaten path.  Here's the title track from Stevie Ray Vaughan's Texas Flood, and Big Bill Broonzy's "Southern Flood Blues," recorded in 1937.  As with most of the classic blues artists, for those looking to collect, I have the JSP boxed set, in this case, All the Classic Sides: 1928-1937.  (Big Bill recorded a lot).



Sunday, August 27, 2017

Presidents and natural disasters

Depending on your political memory, a hurricane and a not-terribly-competent president might strike a bit of a chord with you.

Back in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans-- home of the highest art form humanity has ever achieved: jazz.  After the death and destruction, the George W. Bush Administration did not fare well in the public mind for their response.  You may be surprised to read that there is actual, scholarly research on what happens to incumbents when natural disasters hit.  Chris Achen and Larry Bartels wrote a paper a while back called, "Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Drought, Flu and Shark Attacks."  They have since elaborated on the central insights and published a book called Democracy for Realists, which is worth reading, but the basic point of Blind Retrospection is that voters will hold incumbents responsible for events beyond their control, like those in the title.

Of course, not everything is beyond their control.  The governmental response to a crisis is within their control.  The 1916 New Jersey shark attacks were nobody's fault but the sharks'.  Katrina was a complex weather phenomenon.  However, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been run effectively under previous administrations, and... less effectively by Michael "heck of a job, Brownie" Brown, who received the job from George W. Bush primarily as patronage rather than because he had relevant experience to run FEMA.  While nobody caused Katrina to decimate New Orleans, then, administrative incompetence during the response is an actual, legitimate issue.

Nevertheless, Achen and Bartels do point out one of the critical flaws in, well, the concept of democracy, as far as I'm concerned.  If you hadn't noticed, I don't have a high opinion of voters, and Achen and Bartels do show that voters punish incumbents for events that are clearly beyond their control.

So now a bad hurricane is doing some damage to Texas.  How will Trump and his administration respond?  Ineptly.  Why?  They are inept.  Will it matter?  By Achen and Bartels' research, a bit.  Then again, Trump's approval rating is already so low that anyone who would have abandoned him probably already has, so I don't know if it will matter.  Of course, for Trump, this is a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword kind of thing.  He wants credit for a growing economy.  Well, here's GDP growth, according to our good friend, FRED (Federal Reserve Economic Data), going back to the "Great Recession."



I went back to the "Great Recession," to put 2017 in context, and... no, 2017 isn't exactly spectacular growth.  You can head over to FRED yourself and look at any stats you want.  2017 ain't nothin' special.  It's fine, but nothing special.  What's awesome?  The stock market.  Why?  More on that later, but the basic point is that Trump isn't responsible for the fact that 2017 is experiencing economic growth.  The economic growth we are seeing is basically the norm for post-Great Recession.  If Trump tries to take credit for it, he is taking credit for something that isn't his doing.  The flip side of that is taking the blame for something he didn't cause.  Like a natural disaster.  Achen & Bartels say that kind of shit happens.

Yay, democracy!

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

David Grier, "Eye of the Hurricane," from Lone Soldier.  Too crass?  Eh.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Trump vs. Congressional Republicans: Who wins?

David Hopkins posted something earlier this week on his blog arguing that, in a war between congressional Republicans and Donald Trump, Trump is at an advantage, and Vox picked up on that, interviewing him.  I dissent.  I've picked on Hopkins before here, and in fact, at the very start of this blog, with the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series.  My disagreements are less severe here, but they are significant.

Hopkins argues that Trump basically has an advantage over congressional Republicans in a Republican civil war because he has a bigger mouth and more loyal followers in more important positions (e.g. the conservative media).  There's more to it, but I'm going to focus on those aspects.  All of that is true.  I think Hopkins is ignoring two critical points.

First, I have been arguing for some time here that Republican elites, like congressional Republicans, have been maintaining Trump's public support by signaling to Republican voters that they should support Trump.  Voters are basically mindless critters who do what they are told.  They follow cues-- particularly partisan cues.  Trump's support among the Republican base is a function of Republican elites' signaling of their support.  While we, the political junkies, know that people like McConnell hate Trump, it is only the stray comment from Corker or Flake that breaks the wall of public support among elite Republicans for Trump.  Most of them just brush aside the Russia scandals and only give half-hearted condemnations of Trump's racist and misogynist antics.

At the end of the day, Trump's support among the Republican base isn't independent of the fact that congressional Republicans still support him publicly.  If they turned, in larger numbers against him, that support would crumble because there would no longer be a coherent signal that loyal Republicans support Trump out of simple partisanship.  This just goes back to good, ole' Johnny Zaller and The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.  Republican voters, if they receive unidirectional signals of support for Trump from their trusted information sources, will support Trump.  If the signals aren't unidirectional, that doesn't work.

What prevents elite Republicans from defecting in larger numbers?  I have written before about the collective action problem in this very context.  Mancur Olson:  The Logic of Collective Action.  Basic issue:  there is some good that you want provided, and a lot of people need to contribute, but no one person can do it alone.  Contributing is costly.  So, don't bother contributing because you, alone, won't make the difference.  Everyone thinks that way, so the good doesn't get provided because everyone is rational.  That's the collective action problem, in brief.  A bunch of Republicans defecting and taking on Trump could bring him down, but being the one to take him on is risky.  We'll see what happens with Corker and with Flake, but the collective action problem prevents more signals from being sent to the base about how dissatisfied congressional Republicans are with Trump, and that is what keeps his numbers from collapsing completely among the base.

But you know what could change that?  My second issue with Hopkins's argument-- the institutional power of Congress here.  Trump has whined that congressional Republicans aren't protecting him, but in the critical ways, they are.  There haven't been any serious congressional investigations or open hearings, and nobody has really used their subpoena power against the Trump Administration.  That could change.  All that would have to happen is that a committee chair would need to let a vote happen within committee, and let one or two Republicans on the committee cross party lines.  The chair wouldn't even have to be the one to cross party lines.  The chair could simply stop exercising what we call "negative agenda control," and let the Democrats, plus a handful of Republicans, force open hearings on Russia and Trump's finances.  They could demand... Trump's tax returns.

And institutionally, they can permit an impeachment.  With enough revelations, and a party divided to the degree that the Republicans were during Watergate, they can allow Democrats to introduce and vote on articles of impeachment.  And if congressional Republicans are not sending unified signals of support to the Republican base, as they essentially are now, then by institutional rules, Trump's just fucked.  He has no recourse.  There is no trick.  He can whine.  He can even try to demand an uprising.  It could get very ugly.  But, the fact is that Congress has the institutional power, and the use of that institutional power for investigatory purposes can reveal enough to allow congressional Republicans to reach a point of division similar to Watergate, in which case congressional Republicans "win" by revealing enough information to divide the base.  That relatively unified support we see now is a function of elite support, not a constraint on elite support.  Sorry, but John Zaller still applies.

Notice, though, that I put "win" in quote marks.  Trump is going after McConnell, McCain, and plenty of other congressional Republicans, in very personal ways, and some of them aren't even hitting back.  See, for example, McConnell.  Why?  If congressional Republicans can "beat" Trump in a GOP civil war, then why is Trump fighting while most congressional GOP-ers are demurring?

Because Trump is stupid, and McConnell is smart.  Trump is lashing out for personal reasons.  He is "losing," he hates losing, and he has to blame other people.  That's it.  Nothing else.  He's incompetent at his job, and he's a whiner.  I keep comparing him to Carter, and he is doing his best to make Carter look like FDR in terms of competence.

Why won't McConnell and the rest hit back?  The same reason I keep giving you.  Watergate had fallout.  In 1974, the GOP lost a lot of seats, and then in 1976... Carter.  Congressional Republicans are in a bind.  They can either try to ride out Trump's Presidency, or take him down, but there is no model in which taking him down doesn't take them down too.  The analogy I keep using is that Trump has an electoral bomb strapped to him with a dead-man trigger, and the entire GOP is chained to him.  They made a horrendous series of mistakes by not fighting him in the 2016 nomination contest, but now they're fucked because they either have to ride out his Presidency, or accept the electoral losses that come from bringing him down.

How bad would those losses be?  It depends on how bad the revelations get.  What we know so far is that Trump fired the FBI Director to shut down the investigation into his campaign's Russian connections and Russian interference.  That's not just bad-- it's the same thing that forced Nixon's resignation.  Add to that Flynn's many problems, Manafort and his Russian/Ukraine stuff, Trump Jr., Sessions discussing campaign strategy with Kislyak after having lied to Congress and said he never even met with any Russians ever, Trump leaking classified intelligence to the Russians in the Oval Office...  And that's just a tiny slice of what we know so far.

So, consider the following hypothetical:  Trump has been insisting over, and over, and over again that he has no business dealings in Russia.  If some financial records come out in an investigation that show him tied into some Putin pawn... maybe some massive debt...  then a bunch more revelations about contacts between Trump's campaign people and FSB-connected people, and all of this gets tied into the money trail...

How likely is this?  We don't know, but the uglier the revelations get, the easier it would be for Republicans to break ranks and allow Democrats to introduce and move on articles of impeachment.

That's why Congress isn't doing a real investigation!  That's why Republicans are holding ranks!  To avoid 1974 and 1976!

The conflict between Trump and congressional Republicans isn't a conflict in which Trump has more advantages, as Hopkins claims.  It is a conflict between a child and parents.  The child is throwing a temper tantrum in public.  The child is loud, and has a shrill voice.  (Hey!  "Shrill!"  Get it?)  Crying children tend to elicit sympathy, and onlookers might worry that the parent has done something wrong, making the parents nervous about disciplining the child in public.  The child is particularly problematic, and really needs to be in a special home, but the parents are just trying to get through this shopping trip.

In other words, the conflict is one between an irrational actor lashing out against his own best interests and alienating those whom he needs, and rational actors who could defeat the President, but won't because the backlash would hurt them too.

There is another reference here.  The same one I make over, and over, and over again.  Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  The rational actor versus the irrational one.  McConnell is rational, and won't punish Trump because doing so would hurt his own party.  Trump is irrational, so he's not just threatening to lash out at his own party-- he's actually fucking stupid enough that he's doing it now!

So, no, Trump is not at a strategic advantage in a GOP civil war.  He's just stupid enough to try to fight one.  If McConnell and Ryan decided to fight, they'd crush him by opening serious congressional investigations that revealed whatever Trump is hiding, allowing congressional GOP-ers to stop signaling unified partisan support, which they essentially are doing now, at which point Trump no longer has that public support that Hopkins's argument relies upon, and we are back to Watergate.  Why don't they do it?  Watergate.

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

Close enough...

Guy Clark, "Tornado Time in Texas," from Workbench Songs

Friday, August 25, 2017

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

No political references tonight.  John Abercrombie just died.  He was one of the truly great, innovative and distinctive jazz guitarists.  This is my favorite piece from him.  "Parable," from Characters.

Trump and his people are talking... sense on the debt ceiling

That... did not feel good to type.  Something weird, but important is happening.  And it is useful for social science!

Obligatory refresher on the debt ceiling:  Congress tells the Treasury to disburse more money than it lets the IRS collect in taxes.  The only way for the Treasury to disburse that money is for them to sell bonds, but there is also a statutory limit on the bonds that the Treasury can issue, called, "the debt ceiling."  If we hit the debt ceiling, either they can't disburse all the money they must disburse, the IRS has to collect more money than they can collect, or the Treasury must sell more bonds than they are allowed to sell.  All of those options are bad and illegal.  The most bad but least illegal, and therefore most likely outcome is that not everyone gets paid.  If that includes bond-holders, then we are really and royally fucked, because investors lose confidence in our bonds, and lots of badness ensues.

When we hit the debt ceiling, Congress has three options:  let a disaster happen, raise the debt ceiling (kick the can down the road), or eliminate the debt ceiling.

That third option is what we should do, as basically everyone with a brain and any economics training knows (no other country is dumb enough to do it this way), but we're too fucking stupid for that.  U-S-A!  U-S-A!  That leaves either disaster, or kicking the can down the road, which is what we always do.

Historically, a party's position on the debt ceiling has been tied to whether or not they are in the majority, because it's a fun little game to say "raising the debt ceiling is horrible!" when you are in the minority, and don't have to worry about the actual consequences of your votes, but Republicans forgot to switch after the 2010 election gave them control of the House, and we've had debt ceiling problems ever since.  That is, obviously, the very abbreviated version.

Now, we have unified government and an idiot in the White House.  Which way would Trump jump?  Amazingly enough, Trump is... acting like a normal president on the debt ceiling!  The Trump Administration's formal position is that the debt ceiling needs to be raised, without strings attached.  True.  He also chastised Congress for not just doing it.  He said that it would have been much easier if they had just attached it to the more popular VA bill.

Um...

True.

Trump speaks the truth on this.  The debt ceiling has to be raised.  Period.  The Democrats aren't going to give them any concessions for an increase.  Obama did in 2011 as part of the Budget Control Act, and it was a strategic mistake.  He realized that, and never did again.  Republicans won't get any Democratic votes for a debt ceiling increase with strings attached.  Freedom Caucus members aren't going to go for anything that isn't wacko, and some of them won't vote for a debt ceiling increase, period.

Solution?  Well, either the straight-up, no-strings-attached bill with mostly Democratic votes that Ryan can't put up for a vote without getting Boehnered, or... Trump's solution.  Attach it to something like the VA bill.

Yes, Trump is kind of right on this.  He is approaching this like... a normal president.

What happened?  The debt ceiling really is, in policy terms, simple.  You vote to increase it when necessary.  Otherwise, bad shit happens, and everyone except the hardcore mouthbreathers knows it.  He's got Mnuchin and others around him telling him, "look, this doesn't happen, and you have an economic collapse."  He then has people pointing out that the president takes the blame when the economy collapses, and his position is pretty simple.

Why does failure to raise the debt ceiling potentially cause an economic collapse?  It raises interest rates on bonds if bond-holders worry about not getting paid, which subsequently raises all other interest rates because our bonds are the comparatively safest investments, so everything else is tied to them.  When bond interest rates go up, so does the rate on any other kind of loan.  When that happens, fewer loans are made, and blah, blah blah.  If you know anything about economics, you can see what happens from there.  I can do a longer post on the chain of events, and "crowding out," and all of that because I actually read a shit-load of economics, but do you think Trump can explain the mathematics of "crowding out," or how the interest rate on bonds affects other kinds of investment?  No.  Of course not.  All he does is watch Fox News and tweet all day.

But, he just had all of his advisors tell him that if the debt ceiling isn't raised, people will say that he is responsible for the worst economic disaster in history.

So, he is acting like... a normal president.

Wow.  Yeah, Trump is speaking truth, and acting like a normal president.  With proper training, this is what you can do with Abby Normal's brain...



I'd really rather have Hans Delbruck's brain in charge of our nuclear arsenal than Abby's, and the occasional performance of "Puttin' on the Ritz" just doesn't make me feel safe...  How about you?  Fuckin' Igor...

(So, in this metaphor, Mnuchin is obviously Frankenstein, and Igor would be, I guess, Comey?)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

On shutdowns and tax reform in unified government

In yesterday's post, I wrote about the silliness of playing chicken with one's own party and threatening a government shutdown over... anything.  Yet, right now, the looming question in policy terms is whether or not the Republican unified government will successfully avoid a government shutdown and debt ceiling breach.  During... unified government.

I find it baffling, then, that anyone takes seriously the possibility that tax reform will pass.  It won't.  A tax cut will pass, and again, I'll get back to this when things ramp up, but the basic point is that a unified government that either can't avoid a shutdown, or can only barely avoid it won't be able to pass a tax reform package.  Tax reform is harder than not shutting down the government.  Difficulty is subject to the transitive property of mathematics.  If A is either too hard for me, or just barely within my capability, and B is harder than A, then I can't do B.

I actually made this same argument over the passage of an Obamacare repeal bill, with reference to music, of course.  Passing something in the House would be easier than passing something in the Senate, therefore if the GOP could only barely pass something in the House, they were screwed in the Senate.  And hey!  Math works!

And extending that argument here, this is unified government.  Passing something is supposed to be easier than during divided government.  Time for another reference.  David Mayhew's Divided We Govern.  Many moons ago, David Mayhew decided to measure how many major laws were passed when one party ran the whole shebang, and when control the different branches was split between the parties, and he found that the same amount of stuff happened, on average, during unified and divided government.  There were periods of high productivity with divided government, like Nixon's Presidency, and times of low productivity with unified government, like... Carter!

Carter should sound familiar, depending on how long you have been reading this pretentious, little blog, because I've been saying that if Trump got elected, he'd be reminiscent of Carter since before he got the nomination, when most other political scientists were still saying we should ignore him because our pretty, little models said he had no chance of winning the nomination.

We think of dysfunctionality as being a product of divided government.  When Obama is on one side of the spectrum, and Ryan/McConnnell are on the opposite, then politics are just intrinsically fucked, and they kind of are.  Nixon's Presidency saw a lot of stuff happen because while we had divided government, Nixon wasn't an ideologue.  He was an actual deal-maker, and in the absence of ideological polarization, stuff happened.  It is the combination of ideological polarization and divided government that makes everything go to shit.

But unified government can be dysfunctional too.  What makes unified government dysfunctional?  A dysfunctional president, for one thing.  Carter didn't have a fucking clue what he was doing.  Nelson Polsby's argument in Consequences of Party Reform, from which I drew the Carter comparison early last year, was that Carter was ineffectual because, as an outsider, he had no connection with national Democratic Party leaders, and as President, never bothered trying to establish any.  Instead, he was more likely to antagonize congressional Democrats.  So, nothing happened, and he didn't get his agenda through.

Um... sound familiar?  Haven't I been saying this for a long time about Trump?  And it's getting worse.  So, instead of actually working on tax reform, which would be haaaaaaard, Trump is threatening to shut down the government over a border wall that he has admitted privately isn't important, and that his original promise was to force Mexico to fund, all the while yelling at McConnell, McCain, Flake, Murkowski, Collins, Heller...

This is not how you get tax reform done.  This isn't even how you win funding for your pet project.  This is how you demonstrate David Mayhew's point that unified government can be dysfunctional too, particularly under incompetent presidents.  Like Carter.  To whom I have been comparing Trump for a year and a half.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A government shutdown over the border wall?

There are so many things one could say about the Phoenix rally, but I'll focus on the Congress side because I may as well do that...

So, quick reminder.  Fiscal years run October to October.  Like academic years, but different.  Congress has to pass either appropriations bills, continuing resolutions (which extend the previous appropriations, making minor modifications), or something like that, or government agencies don't get their money, and they can't pay employees, contractors, etc.  They "shut down."  First, janitors don't show up to collect the trash every day, and trash builds up unless everyone else takes out the garbage.  Then, more and more essential personnel get "furloughed," and eventually, real problems occur as the bank accounts of various agencies run dry.  How bad it gets depends on the agency and the specific personnel.  The longer a shutdown goes on, the more people notice the inconvenience.  Shutdowns really start to inconvenience people within a couple of weeks.  Since the public doesn't like inconvenience, shutdowns are rare because somebody takes the blame, and nobody likes taking the blame.  Shutdown politics are a game of chicken.  More on that momentarily...

Anyway, Trump has gone back to the idea that he will force a government shutdown if Congress doesn't pony up money for his border wall.  You know, the one that he begged Nieto to stop saying Mexico wouldn't fund, and that even Trump admitted wasn't important?  Yeah, that one!

Let's pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that Trump's central campaign promise was to make Mexico pay for the wall, and now he is threatening to veto any spending bills that don't include US taxpayer funding for the wall, which he has admitted in private is unimportant and begged Nieto to stop saying Mexico won't fund.  Now everyone really is laughing at America...

OK, continuing.  Here's how the "game of chicken" works.  Two players drive towards each other.  Whoever swerves is a chicken.  Whoever doesn't swerve gets bragging rights.  If both players swerve, they're both chickens, but that isn't as bad as being the only chicken.  Both players make their choice simultaneously.  So, here's the game.  Higher numbers are better payoffs, and the first number is the payoff for the player choosing the row, by tradition.


Drive
Swerve
Drive
1,1
4,2
Swerve
2,4
3,3

There are two "Nash equilibria."  Drive/Swerve, and Swerve/Drive.  Those combinations of strategies meet the following criterion:  neither player can do better given what the other player is doing.

Shutdown games are games of chicken.  Trump wants money for his border wall.  Actually, he doesn't give a shit about the wall, as we learned from the Nieto call-- he just can't back away from his campaign promise, but he is willing to back away from who pays for it, and will stick us with the tab, since he never pays any taxes anyway.  Congress... not so much.  A shutdown, though, has the potential to hurt either Congress or Trump.  That's the Drive/Drive outcome.  Each side wants to make the other back down.  Chicken.

Here's the catch.  This... doesn't happen in unified government.  Why?  Because there's only one party to take the blame.  The... party... of the... president.  Shutdown showdowns happen in divided government, like in 1995, or 2013.  Why?  Because there needs to be a chance that voters will blame the other side, and voters are simple-minded, partisan critters.  Right now, voters hate Trump.  His approval rating is below 40.  But, Congress is controlled by the same party, and whatever happens, they're all kind of fucked.  In 1995, when Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton went into battle, they were of different parties.  There was a chance that Gingrich could have won.  He didn't, but the fact that they were of opposing parties meant that the partisan structure of the conflict could have come out differently.

Fun fact:  there have been occasional shutdowns throughout history in unified government.  They usually last a day or two.  Congress misses a deadline, and then rushes a bill through.  You just never notice.  This, though?  This would be fucking nuts, all around.  Actual games of chicken risk actual death.  Only people truly fucking stupid, drunk or otherwise mentally incapacitated play the game, which makes it odd that we use the structure in rational choice theory.  The analogy to budgetary games only works because with something like a government shutdown, the chance that one side actually escapes blame means that Clinton and Gingrich could go into the situation in 1995 thinking that they could win even with the shutdown occurring.  Clinton did.

If an actual shutdown happens over this wall, with Trump and a Republican Congress, who wins?  Democrats.  Ryan and McConnell are smart enough to understand this.  I doubt Trump is.  What does that mean for the actual appropriations process?  I have no idea.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Measuring success in Afghanistan and "proving a negative"

At some point in your life, you have probably heard the phrase, "you can't prove a negative."  Bad phrasing, and I don't like to talk about proofs except in the context of math.  If you are one of my students, I have probably hassled you about improper use of the word, "proof."  Still, the old joke is as follows:  I have a pen in my pocket.  (In fact, a Fischer space pen, as everyone should carry!)  I have never been mauled by a zombie ice bear while carrying my Fischer space pen.  Therefore, my Fischer space pen repels zombie ice bears.  Take that, Thoros of Myr!  The pen is mightier than the flaming sword!

You can't prove that my pen doesn't repel zombie ice bears!

Yeah, that's obviously bullshit, and it is the core of the "you can't prove a negative" aphorism.  Of course, if there were zombie ice bears, we could set up a proper test, but that's a separate matter.  I'm just trying to demonstrate the illogic of the syllogism.

So, Trump made his big-boy speech last night, and we are re-escalating in Afghanistan.  No nation-building, just terrorist-killing.  How do we measure success?  Well, we can count the number of terrorists killed, presuming they carry Al-Qaeda/ISIS/Taliban membership cards which give them discounts at the local markets.  Odds of that?  Um... not good.  For the high-ranking members, we can probably identify their corpses, depending on how badly we obliterate them, and how mixed up their body parts are with the... collateral damage.  Other than that?

It's about the number of terrorist attacks prevented.  It's about what doesn't happen.  We haven't had a big, coordinated strike on US soil since 9/11, except for the anthrax attacks, which are... still kind of a mystery.  Yes, that counts, for all those idiots who want to say that Dubya kept us safe and nothing happened after 9/11.  Nope!  The rest of what has happened have been lone-wolf types of things.  Single shooters, single drivers, single bombers (or brothers...), and the other types of things that don't need any real coordination from any leadership.

Reality check:  lone wolf attackers are almost impossible to stop.  We can only prevent attacks through intercepted communications and other forms of human intelligence gathering, and lone wolf attackers aren't doing preparations by communicating, so they can't be stopped.  Deal with it.

Coordinated attacks can be stopped, and we haven't been hit with a big attack in a while.  Other countries have.  Spain has been, multiple times now.

Why haven't we?  Um...

That's where we hit the "you can't prove a negative" problem.  We can't know if it is because of successful actions on the part of the government or lack of trying by Al Qaeda/ISIS.  After 9/11, smaller attacks would make them look weaker, so one could make the case that they needed to wait and plan for something that wouldn't be a let-down, so to speak.  Then again, we've got the NSA, the CIA and a bunch of other agencies you don't know about devoting most of their resources to tracking down and killing those shitbags, along with the fact that the military has been bombing the shit out of everywhere we think they might be hiding, so maybe we have stopped whatever attacks they were planning.

And if we had, would the government tell us?  There's the problem.  A Trump-ian government would want to brag, but the problem with doing so is that it would reveal what we know, and doing that undercuts our methods.  Earlier, I wrote a post about leaks and the issues associated with them in general, and there are circumstances in which public revelations really do undercut national security.  If the CIA and the NSA working together really did stop a set of attacks through some operation, and somebody leaked that, that would be really bad because it would allow Al Qaeda/ISIS to adjust their operations to counter ours.

So, we can't know if the fact that there have been no 9/11-style or scale attacks is because of successful operations or because they just haven't gotten it together to pull off something that won't make them look weaker.

And if the plan for Afghanistan is not nation-building, but stopping terrorist attacks, then our measure of success is bound by the same problem.

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

OK, so it was a bit presumptuous of me to start the Tuesday music series.  Give me a theme, and I can find some classic jazz (Friday) or blues (Monday) track for a reference, but today, I should really have something for Afghanistan (or maybe Pakistan).  I don't know jack shit about music from Afghanistan.  So... Spain is still in the news.  Here's some flamenco.  Carlos Montoya, "Solea: Bulerias Por Solea."  Depending on the compilation, the track may be listed slightly differently, but it's the same piece, and it's Carlos, so it's great.  He was the flashiest guitarist in the flashiest style.  Andres Segovia hated flamenco, but of course he would.  Stodgy old bastard...

Monday, August 21, 2017

What to expect from Trump's Afghanistan policy

Escalation, obviously.

I'll leave it to the military people to address the consequences of that.  I'm a political scientist, so I'll address the politics.  Normally, in times of an international crisis, the public "rallies" around the president.  We call this the "rally 'round the flag" effect, with the key book here being Richard Brody's Assessing the President.

And you can see the effect quite clearly in Gallup trends.  Those large spikes in approval that you see in, for example, George W. Bush's approval ratings?  9/11, and then the invasion of Iraq.  The spike in his father's approval rating?  The previous invasion of Iraq.  The condition, though, is that the effect doesn't occur without elite consensus.  Why?  For that, we turn to good, ole' John Zaller, and the standard text for all things public opinion-- The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.  According to Zaller, people don't really have coherent beliefs.  Instead, they respond to survey questions based on the balance of considerations in their heads at the time.  Those considerations are basically just reflections of the messages they receive and accept from elites.  If the messages are all in one direction, public opinion moves in one direction because eventually, even those who are resistant to the message are worn down and accept it.  That's the short version, anyway.  I'm summarizing a book in a couple of sentences.

Basically, when elites agree that we should rally 'round the president, the public does.

Normally, when the president says, "we're invading so-and-so," elites agree that we should rally 'round the president.  It doesn't always work that way.  And it didn't quite work that way when George W. Bush announced the troop surge in Iraq in 2007.  Dubya's approval rating had already fallen, the war there had been going on for a long time, and there didn't seem to be the kind of elite consensus or subsequent rally effect that one might expect if one simply mechanically assumed that war means a rally effect.  It doesn't.

And tonight, Trump is going to announce something about Afghanistan.  As I said, I'll leave it to the military people to comment on what he announces, and what the consequences might be, but if we are looking for historical parallels here, the 2007 Iraq troop surge seems like the more obvious one in terms of the politics.  Trump's approval rating is comparable to Dubya's around 2007, the war in Afghanistan has been going on a long time, and is already unpopular, and the rally effect relies on partisans across the aisle rallying to the president.

Right now, it is virtually impossible to imagine what possible circumstance would get elite Democrats to rally to Trump.  After 9/11, George W. Bush's approval rating went sky-high because whatever Democrats thought of Bush, we were faced with an enemy they had to acknowledge was far worse.  That's what war does.  After Obama came into office, one of the questions that became interesting was whether a 9/11 event would cause a similar rally, or whether the "Obama is a muslim" bullshit circulating among the tea party would prevent such a rally.  I leaned towards the latter position due to the proliferation of Obama conspiracy theories, and the unwillingness of even people like John Boehner to shoot those conspiracy theories down.

Turning that around with Trump, though, consider the recent comments by even people like Senator Bob Corker-- a Republican-- acknowledging the fact that Trump is incompetent and unstable.  Combine that with the fact that we now know his campaign at least attempted to collude with Russia, and that he tried to obstruct the investigation into the Russia matters by firing Comey, and we have the reverse situation.  No matter what the crisis is, can Trump be trusted to handle it?

And the Charlottesville stuff does factor in here.  I've finally stopped ranting about it to begin talking about Afghanistan, and the politics of war, but the more Trump antagonizes large segments of the population, the less possible it becomes for them to rally around him in other circumstances.

And this is part of the trap that Trump faces.  Let's be blunt about this.  Trump wants a war.  He wants a war because he keeps failing and losing.  He can't "get a win" on anything legislatively, like healthcare.  Tax reform is doomed, although a tax cut will happen (more on that later), his administration is in total chaos, the Mueller investigation has him on the run, his approval ratings are abysmal...  Trump has only ever really been praised as President when he shot a missile at Syria and dropped a MOAB on Afghanistan.  He knows about wartime rallies, and he thinks he's a tough guy.  This is his only option.  It won't work to get a rally effect, and militarily... I'll let others comment, but at least you have some citations now.

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

Blind Lemon Jefferson, "Wartime Blues" from the pre-album days.  My recommendation for Blind Lemon Jefferson, as with most classic blues artists, is to go for a JSP boxed set if you are hard-core.  However, this one is also on Yazoo's Best of..., which is a decent single-disc option.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

What it looks like when we erase history

I'm sick of this shit, and in a bad mood this morning.  More coffee means another rant.

Is taking down a statue "erasing history?"  Um, let's talk about what it really looks like when people try to erase history in this country.

At the beginning of the 112th Congress, the newly elected Republican House majority decided to go through a ceremony.  They were going to read the full text of the Constitution on the floor of Congress, alternating Members, with successive legislators reading successive passages.  The ritual was the fulfillment of a promise based on the "tea party's" notion that we had lost our way, and that the Constitution had been thrown aside.  We must return to the Constitution, and the first step was to start the new session of Congress by actually reading the Constitution.

The thing was, few tea partiers had ever actually read the Constitution.  They didn't really know what was in it.  Among conservatives, there are parts of the document that are quite unpopular.  Ask any conservative about the Constitution, and their favorite part will be...

THE SECOND AMENDMENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

After that?  Um....

As it turns out, a lot of conservatives really hate a key portion of the First Amendment.  Specifically, the establishment clause.  Just ask Alabama Senate candidate, former-Judge Roy Moore!  To religious conservatives, "we are a christian nation," and should be formally established as such.  They'd kind of like to get rid of that pesky establishment clause.  As much as liberals would love to get rid of the Second Amendment!  Conservatives also pretty much hate the 16th Amendment (income taxes), and a faction in the movement has recently-- and weirdly-- rallied around the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment, which was the amendment that instituted direct election of Senators.  I could keep going, but the basic point is that conservatives really aren't as keen on the actual text of the Constitution as the 2010 tea party rhetoric suggested, but back in 2010, they all put on tricornered hats and ranted about how we all needed to get back to this sacred document.  So, House Republicans said that they would read the full text of the Constitution at the start of the 112th Congress.  First thing.  Full text.  No fuckin' around!

Wanna see it?  Here it is.



That's C-SPAN's 51:23 video, edited to cut out the speaker transitions.  If you don't want to spend 51 minutes watching it, I'll spoil it for you.  The Republicans didn't actually read the full text.  Part of it was that they were incompetent, and had some glitches, but there were some more serious issues.  Aside from some behind-the-scenes squabbles over who got to read THE SECOND AMENDMENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, it was only after they had locked themselves into this stupid, little promise of reading the full text that any of them actually read the full text and realized that, um... wait a minute.  That fuckin' thing talks about slaves 'n shit!  Yes, it got amended, but if you actually read through the full text, it talks about three-fifths, and things like that.  What the fuck do you do with things like that?!

What did congressional Republicans do?

They didn't read those portions.  They erased history.  Watch that fuckin' video.  You will not hear the congressional Republicans read the portions of the Constitution that addressed the existence and implications of slavery written into the founding document.

Why?  They used the excuse that those portions were amended, but "amended" isn't "erased."  Congressional Republicans "erased" those passages, verbally.  They chose not to read those passages because the whole thing was a stupid publicity stunt, and they didn't think it would be fun to get up on camera and talk about three-fifths of a person.

So, they just didn't read those passages.  That is what it looks like to erase history.

Taking down a statue doesn't erase history.  Pretending the Constitution didn't say what it said?  That was erasing history.  On camera.

Trump, "many sides," and the Civil War

In yesterday's post, I did a little rant on historical revisionism, but it's time to get more direct about Trump's rhetoric, because there are some serious problems with how we still deal with the Civil War.

Two of Trump's comments have caught a great deal of attention.  The "many sides" refrain, in which he pretended that the Charlottesville incident was one without moral clarity, and his follow-up comments about how there were decent people marching alongside the neo-nazis and klansmen.

The basic point of yesterday's post was to remind everyone that, once you strip away all of the bullshit and look at the actual historical documentation, like the Declarations of Secession, the South seceded to preserve slavery.  The abolitionist movement was gaining strength up through the election of 1860, and when Lincoln won, the "slaveholding States" decided to secede.  Because they wanted to keep human beings as slaves.  There were plenty of moral compromises on the part of the North, but the Confederacy was doing it for slavery.  And yet, the confederate apologists keep trying to obscure that.  To act as though there were...

...

"many sides, many sides."

Yes, there was violence on both sides in the Civil War, but the South was doing it to preserve slavery.  Period.  The historical symmetry here couldn't be more perfect.  Confederate apologists have spent... well... a long time trying to kick up a cloud of moral ambiguity around the Civil War by obscuring the fact that their side was fighting for slavery, and now, white supremacists show up to protest the removal of confederate statues, some racist piece of shit murders a woman, and David Duke's hero tries to kick up a cloud of moral ambiguity around the incident itself.

Denying the centrality of slavery to the Civil War-- and the villainy that it implies for the Confederacy-- is "many sides"-ing the Civil War.  Put another way, what Trump did to Charlottesville is the same thing that confederate apologists do to the Civil War.

And that brings me to the supposedly-decent people Trump thought were marching alongside the KKK and neo-nazis in Charlottesville.  An observation plenty of people have made is that if you find yourself marching alongside klansmen and neo-nazis, you should probably ask yourself if you are marching on the right side.  You probably aren't, so how decent could any of those people really be?

That brings me to Robert E. Lee.  Let's ask that question about Robert E. Lee!

Why is Lee so important to confederate apologists' mythology?  Well, if your side was the side of slavery, then in order to pretend that your side wasn't just total villainy, you need at least one person who can't get into the Hitler Club.  And this is where Robert E. Lee fits in.  You know the legends about how he supposedly hated slavery, and was such a decent, honorable person and blah, blah, fucking blah.

You know.  The confederates weren't all bad people.  There were some decent people with them.  Just like Trump said.  However, if you find yourself marching along with the KKK and the neo-nazis, you should ask yourself if you are in the wrong march, right?  Shouldn't Lee have asked himself if he was fighting for the wrong side?

What should have tipped him off?  Aside from the fact that he was fighting for the pro-slavery faction.  If we are drawing an analogy to those with whom one marches, how about the fact that the other generals were people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, who went on to found the KKK after the South lost the war?  I'm going to go ahead and recommend that you don't Google "Nathan Bedford Forrest" if you don't know who he was.  Too many bad things can happen when you Google racist shit...  Pick up a history book instead.  Short version:  he was as bad as they come.  He was a true believer.  The worst of the worst.  That Hitler Club I mentioned?  Forrest could get in.  Somehow, the fact that he was fighting alongside people like that didn't tip Lee off that he was on the wrong side.

If we don't accept Trump's statement that you can be decent and march next to neo-nazis and klansmen, then we cannot accept that Lee had any nobility at all.  He fought for slavery next to people like Nathan Bedford Forrest.

The notion of the noble warrior fighting on the wrong side is a nice literary construct.  It makes for great works of fiction, but in works of fiction, nobody real gets enslaved or killed.

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

For all of this Civil War nostalgia crap, I should have just used this one last week.  Oh, well.
Norman Blake & Tony Rice, "Lincoln's Funeral Train," from Norman Blake & Tony Rice 2.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Historical revisionism and the Civil War

Apparently this kind of thing still needs to be written.

Complete the following sentences:

"When in the course of human events ____."

"We hold these truths to be self-evident ___."

Easy-peasy, right?  Why?  Because schoolin' works!  Note the irony of my choice to use an incomplete sentence, and contract the word, "schooling."  Sometimes I just enjoy doing things like that.  Regardless, you can complete those sentences because every American schoolchild has to memorize passages from the source document, and while you might not be able to recite as much anymore, those sentences probably still jog your memory.

We can have a discussion of the phrase, "all men are created equal," and of course, much of American history has been striving towards these goals rather than ever actually meeting them, but the document itself sets out lofty ideals that, in corporate terms, form a kind of mission statement for the country.

But I've led you to believe that this is a post about the Civil War, and historical revisionism.  What's the deal?  Well, if you grew up in the North, the Civil War was about slavery.  If you grew up in the South, they may have called it the "war of Northern aggression," or some other such nonsense, and Confederate apologists today still try to pretend that slavery was little more than a minor afterthought to, maybe, "the war between the States," in which noble rebels fought for lofty, abstract principles like federalism and some generalized, platonic notion of "states' rights," without any specific states' right in mind.  Hence, the lionization of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and others.

You know how you had to memorize at least portions of the Declaration of Independence?  Well, um, did you know that the Confederate States issued their own Declarations of Secession?

Well, if their purposes were sooooo noble, then wouldn't Southern states make their schoolchildren memorize the high ideals contained in these noble documents the same way everyone memorizes the Declaration of Independence?  Huh.  Well, let's just take a little look-see at what's in those masterpieces of high-minded morality.  South Carolina was the first state to secede, so we may as well use their document, just for simplicity's sake.  Here's a link, in case you have never actually read one of these things.*

Anyway, let's get to a-readin'!**  Well, hey, what do you know!  Right there, in the first sentence, they say that the seceding states are the "slaveholding States!"  Gee, I wonder why?  Well, let's keep reading!  I like reading, don't you?  OK, so there's a bunch of stuff about history and generic blather about self-governance, which is about to be undercut by the hypocrisy of what comes next-- the reason for secession.  What do they say about that?  Remember, in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson ticks of a list of the wrongs committed by the King for which we, today, can still say, "yeah, fuck him!"  So, let's see what they said in the South Carolina Declaration of Secession.  "But an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery has led to a disregard of their objections, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution."  And it continues like that.

Well, gee!  That sounds like the kind of thing we should make our schoolkids recite!  Hmmmm....  I wonder why Confederate apologists don't go around quoting those Declarations of Secession...  Maybe it's because the actual, historical documents make it pretty fucking clear what was going on.

When the Confederacy, which seceded to preserve slavery, wrote those documents, they had no idea that a bunch of people would come along, a century and a half later, and try to pretend that the Confederacy seceded for reasons other than slavery.  They didn't think that they should be ashamed of what they were doing because they didn't think that slavery was wrong, so they didn't try to hide their real motives in their actual documentation.  That's the thing about villains-- they rarely think of themselves as villains.  So it was with the Confederacy.  The problem with trying to pretend that they had any moral standing is that it requires either overt racism, or historical revisionism.  The Declarations of Secession, though, lay bare what really happened.  If the Confederacy had expected someone to come along, a century and a half later, and do what modern-day racists do when they defend the Confederacy and monuments to their soldiers, they would have written their Declarations of Secession rather differently.  But they didn't.

And here's some contrast.  I could argue that slavery was more central to the South's purpose in the Civil War than the Holocaust was to Germany's purpose in WWII.  Preserve slavery, and the South would have been happy.  Simply killing all of the jews wouldn't have done it for Hitler.  Something to ponder, for historical contrast.



* Pro-tip:  keep a copy in your bathroom.  Preferably pre-softened, and with pictures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis on it.  When you get tired of reading, you can wipe your ass with it.

** You know, like they murdered slaves for doing!

Brief morning comments

I'm going to try this out.  Maybe it will take.

I have little to say on Bannon's departure.  Trump's White House is chaotic because Trump is chaotic.  Bannon had no influence on Trump-- the "white nationalism" thing was Trump's schtick all along, which was why he hired Bannon.  In political science, we call this issue, "endogeneity."  Does X cause Y, or does Y cause X?  Hard question.  In this case, Bannon's racism didn't influence Trump--Trump's racism caused him to hire Bannon.  How do we know?  Because Trump was racist long before he hired Bannon.  Time order.  Basic social science.

Will this turn Breitbart against Trump?  Who the hell knows?

Trump keeps firing people.  Remember his catch-phrase?  The problem is that if you have to keep firing people, you shouldn't have hired them in the first place.

Why am I starting this today?  Because as I have said on several occasions, (see, for example, here) there is just too much Trumpian drama to keep up.

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

No comments necessary on this one.  Jason Isbell, "White Man's World," from The Nashville Sound.

Friday, August 18, 2017

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

And again, I show my over-reliance on Charles Mingus for this series.
Charles Mingus, "Freedom."  From, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus

Trump, Corker and competence

As you may have read, Senator Bob Corker has finally just come out and said it.  Trump is neither competent nor stable, and he doesn't really get basic American values, or at least the values that we are supposed to hold.  And Corker is a Republican.  Holy shit.  It may be time for me to question whether or not Trump's support will really crater.  I'm still not there yet, but maybe.

What I want to address, though, is the point that I made frequently throughout the campaign.  "Valence."  Back in 1963, Donald Stokes published an article called "Spatial Models of Party Competition."  The article is old enough that the link is un-gated, so you don't need to be on an academic terminal or to set up a VPN to access it.  The gist is that there are "positional" issues about which voters fundamentally disagree abut the objective (e.g. abortion today), and there are "valence" issues, which are the issues about which we fundamentally agree about the objective, but disagree about how to get there, or who can get us there.  For example, we all want a strong economy, but disagree on how to strengthen it, and who knows how to do it.

Game theorists (like me-- hi!) have modified the idea, and turned it into the concept of the valence "characteristic," which is a trait that voters supposedly just want candidates to have, like competence or honesty.  So, candidates have scores for traits like these, which can be converted into a score in a valence "dimension," which we then combine with a candidate's location in some n-dimensional policy space, and then a bunch of math happens, and then we pretend like our fancy math means something when instead, a bunch of racist yokels elect Donald Trump after James Comey decides to pretend like he might indict Clinton over some bullshit even though he knows he won't, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, game theorists (like me) have been working with the concept of the "valence characteristic" for years, and I wrote quite a bit about how important those models were during the campaign, and after.  During the 2016 Democratic Convention, Michael Bloomberg gave this speech:



Yes, this was obvious all along.  It was clear, all along, that Trump was crazy and incompetent.  And frankly, Bob Corker knew all along.  One of the points I keep making about Trump is that he is so obviously an idiot, so obviously crazy, so obviously a con-artist, and so obviously a bad one that you have to be grotesquely stupid not to see through him, and while some congressional GOP-ers are stupid (e.g. Louie Gohmert), Corker isn't stupid.

Corker made a devil's bargain.  He decided to elect someone he knew was unstable and incompetent, and he did it because he thought that person would sign a tax cut and put people like Neil-the-plagiarist-Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, having supported McConnell's year-long blockade.

So, Bobby, what are you going to do about it?

My guess?  Nothing.

What might happen?  I'm going to start putting this out there.  A strong primary challenge in 2020.  The last time we had anything even close to a strong primary challenge to a sitting president?  1992-- Pat Buchanan's challenge to George H.W. Bush, and that wasn't very strong.  For anything real, you have to go back to the complicated politics of Johnson stepping aside in 1968.  Could that happen if enough Republicans get sick of Trump and mount real challenges?

...

Well, wasn't Trump supposed to be a joke of a candidate in 2016?  He won the nomination by inflaming racial tensions and steamrolling the whole party by going full racist.  Um....  You see my point.

2020 is going to be a mess.  For now, though, the GOP is stuck.  They put an incompetent and unstable person in the White House, and some of them knew what they were doing.  Corker did.  But hey, at least you know the political science terminology if you read this blog!  Thanks to Donald Stokes, we can make it all fancy-sounding and highfalutin!  Valence!



Fun fact about game theorists:  most of them don't actually read the literature, so when I go to academic conferences, they talk about "valence," and don't even know that Stokes was the guy who started it all!  They usually cite a decade-younger piece by Enelow & Hinich, or something else influenced by Stokes, because they are too lazy to read.  Old joke:  a grocer in Cambridge, MA is working the express checkout and a kid shows up with about 30 items.  The grocer asks, "Harvard, or MIT?"  The kid is puzzled, and asks how the grocer knows that he attends one of those schools.  The grocer responds, "well, either you go to Harvard and you can't count, or you go to MIT, and you can't read."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Stop asking if this is a turning point for Trump

I keep seeing some version of the following claim:  Trump's response to Charlottesville will finally be the thing that does him in politically.  This is the second time in a few days that I have addressed this point, but it warrants another post because, no, this isn't different, and no, Donald Trump isn't going to suffer any additional consequences.

1)  Remember that overt racism is what brought Donald Trump into politics.  Donald Trump became the top Republican in the country by leading the "birther" movement, and birtherism was all about race.  In the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, we asked respondents where they thought Obama was born.  Guess what?  People's beliefs were closely connected to their responses to questions about things like whether or not the legacy of slavery still affects African-Americans today.  What does that have to do with where Obama was born?  Not a fucking thing!  It's just about race.  Like birtherism.  If you want to play around with the data yourself, here's a great site I use in class all the time.  (If you are one of my students, you probably have the URL memorized!)  Donald Trump got into politics as a racist demagogue.  Anyone who expects consequences now... have you been paying any attention?

2)  Trump's overt racism, even when it prompts expressions of scorn from other Republicans, never leads anywhere.  When he asserted that Judge Curiel couldn't oversee the fraud case against "Trump University" because he was a "Mexican," later amended to "Mexican-American," even Paul Ryan had to admit that it was "textbook" racism.  What happened?  What did Ryan or the rest of the party do?  Nothing.  Oh, and after claiming that he would never settle because only guilty people settle?  Trump settled the case against that bullshit "university."  Just in case you missed that detail...

3)  Pussygate.  Remember when pussygate was supposed to be the end of Trump?  Remember how everyone both condemned him and predicted his doom?  Yes, he had a hell of an assist from James Comey at the end there, but people actually voted for the guy who brags about committing sexual assault.

So, tell me again why this is different, and now, Trump has finally crossed a line?

There is.  No.  Line.

Trump's approval rating is down below 40%.  Gallup has him at 36% as of this morning.  This leads us to two questions.  How low can it go, and does it matter?

On the first question, without an economic collapse or major foreign policy disaster, not much lower.  He's down to his core supporters.  The people who still support him are the ones who are basically racist, misogynist, xenophobic... you know, the hardcore deplorables.  I can't believe I have to type this shit.  I'm a political science professor.  I used to be the guy who never took a public position.  Now, I'm publicly stating that if you support the President... well...  But seriously...  How hard is it to say that the nazis are the bad guys and that when they are involved, it's not a "many sides" kind of thing?!  Help me out here, Indy!



Thank you.  And it's a good thing they never made another movie after that one, right?  Right?!

Anyway, the basic question we need to keep in mind about Trump is as follows.  Trump has always been overtly racist.  Anyone who has ever supported Trump should be asked the following question:  Do you support Trump because he is a racist, or despite the fact that he is a racist?  If Trump's numbers are to go down further in the wake of this incident, it must be the case that Trump's remaining supporters include those who support him despite his racism.  What is the balance between those who cheer his racism and those who merely tolerate it?  That is hard to measure at this point.  I'm just guessing here, and I don't like guesswork, but at this point, I suspect that Trump is down to those who support him because of his racism, in which case his numbers won't go down because of this incident.

On the second question-- the consequences of low approval ratings-- well, that's more complicated.  While Samuel Kernell's Going Public is based on the argument that public approval is a crucial tool for moving public opinion, and thereby forcing Congress's hand lest they risk their own electoral fortunes, most presidential scholars see public approval as a lesser matter in terms of policy efficacy.  Congress right now basically doesn't give a shit what Trump thinks.  Scholars in the Neustadt tradition see professional reputation as being more important, and the only people in Congress who have a shred of respect for Trump are the mouth-breathers like Steve King, and this worthless sycophant...



The flip-side, though, is the question of whether or not Trump's approval ratings could get so low that congressional Republicans decide to stop protecting him.  Could Ryan or McConnell decide to start punishing him, somehow, for the shit he does?

That's a big, "NO," right there.  This was the topic of my post the other day.  Congressional Republicans just don't have that many options for imposing consequences on Trump, and the options they have, they aren't going to take.

So, here we are.  Trump is doing what he has always done.  His approval ratings are low, but probably can't go much lower without either an economic downturn or a foreign policy disaster, and congressional Republicans won't impose any consequences on him.

In other words, same old, same old...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Trump, Charlottesville and North Korea Part II: Self-immolation versus world-immolation

I'm going to start by saying, "I called it."  Yesterday, I posted this about how Trump getting distracted by Charlottesville would give the North Korea situation a chance to calm down.  And it did.  The North Koreans announced that they won't be shooting that missile at Guam after all.  Vox posted this after the North Koreans backed down, making much the same argument, but... I saw it coming before it happened, and posted before the fact.  So... yeah.  Keep reading this blog!  Profane and obscure, but basically right!  (Except when I'm wrong, but even then, I have cool music, right?)

Anywho, speaking of obscure, post hoc ergo propter hoc.  Latin for, "after this, therefore because of this."  It is one of the most important logical fallacies to understand because it is so tempting.  It is also one of the most common logical fallacies to plague the thinking of the great, unwashed masses.

That's not how causation works.  Time order is an important condition for causation, but just because A happened before B, that doesn't mean A caused B.  If you want to understand why this is so important, just think about those damned anti-vaxxers.  My kid got a vaccination, and then developed symptoms of autism.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc!  Of course, that vile fucking piece of shit, Andrew Wakefield had a lot to do with this.  He falsified some data, and published an article in Lancet, which they had to retract, but that still led to a lot of kids dying unnecessarily, and at the core of his bullshit was the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Don't fall prey to post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Trump warned of "fire and fury," and then talked about being "locked and loaded."  Then, just yesterday, North Korea announced that it wouldn't fire at Guam.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Trump quit talking about North Korea because he was distracted by Charlottesville and the criticism he was taking from the media.  North Korea then announced that it wouldn't fire at Guam.  Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

You see the problem.

Obviously, the first version will be more appealing to Trump because it will make him look like a "winner," and he can brag about being bigly, and oooh, look at how bigly his hands are!

Of course, yesterday morning, I explained that the distraction of Charlottesville would end the situation, before North Korea backed away from its missile threats.

In social science terms, how do we distinguish between these two stories?

Um....

Uh....

Well, the first version has a problem in that it omits some intervening events, and I'm going to claim some credit for pointing out the sequence as it was happening.  I think that gives me a bit more credibility here, but that leads to the next point.  Watch the Trump administration's behavior!

Trump's impulse would normally be to brag, and try to rub Kim Jong Un's face in having backed down.  Why?  Because Trump treated the whole situation as a show of dominance.  However, Tillerson, Mattis, Kelly and the grown-ups probably look at it my way, and understand that if Trump goes back to taunting Kim Jong Un, tensions get ratcheted up again.  They need him to keep his fuckin' mouth shut about North Korea for a while.  As long as he stays distracted by Charlottesville, or anything else so that real negotiations can happen, they're happy.  Or, at least, less upset.  With Trump, it's all relative.  But, if Trump tries to do some dominance display and brag about "winning" with North Korea, he undercuts the process.

Yesterday, Trump decided to backtrack from his second Charlottesville statement.  He's going full racist again, and basically avoiding the subject of North Korea.  Wasn't Kelly supposed to try to impose some discipline here?

John Kelly is basically OK with this.  Would he rather Trump not talk like David Duke?  Yes, but that ain't gonna happen, so he'll settle for Trump just focusing on Charlottesville.  Why?  Because while this is a public relations disaster for Trump, it is better to de-escalate North Korea, even if the cost is another incident of Trump being obviously an idiot racist.  There's nothing new about Trump being a loud-mouthed racist.  That will blow over.  His party will issue their half-hearted condemnations, then Trump will beat them back into submission.  See my previous comments on the Mika Brzezinski incident.

And within a week or two, Trump will do something else outrageously stupid and vile, and this will be off the headlines.  Within a month, people will have forgotten about Trump's reaction to Charlottesville because Trump will have done so many stupid and vile things that this just fades into the din.  He's just Trump.  But, North Korea will have been resolved because Trump let himself get distracted.  He chose self-immolation rather than world-immolation.  Again, I say yay(?)