Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Why it is so difficult to write a political science blog in the Trump era

Today will be a sort of a meta-post.

Normally, I get up, do my morning routine, brew my coffee, and settle in at the computer.  I do an initial perusal of the news, and decide what to write.  I keep some notes on what I might write in the future, and when doing a multi-part series, I always sort of know the next piece, but really, if things ran smoothly, I'd struggle with what to write.  This morning, and for the last couple of mornings, I have been intending to write about the next steps the Senate will try to take on Obamacare repeal, and what that means.  And yet, today I have this feeling that I should comment on The Mooch, having just written over the weekend about personnel issues in the White House, including Moochy.  (And as I type this, how the hell did I not use "Minnie the Moocher" for last Friday's music selection?  I'm sorry, Cab!).  I started this blog at the beginning of 2016 because political science was getting the election wrong.  Trump was winning, and he shouldn't have been winning, according to political scientists, and their models.  I started with a series called, Trump to Political Science, "Drop Dead."  Trump has made political science blogging damn-near impossible.  Here are just a few of the ways.

1.  Too much drama to cover.  Now, granted, I'm just one asshole writing this over my morning coffee.  The job of covering all of the drama falls to newspapers, such as they remain, and the big political science blogs have, you know, multiple people involved.  I'm unmutual.  Still, this was a core issue in the campaign.  There was so much batshit craziness that it was hard to focus on any one thing because it kept being pushed aside by the next bit of insanity.  Trump tells a crazy lie and you can't focus on how crazy the lie is because by the time you are 10% through explaining the insanity of it, he's told 50 more lies that are even crazier.  Right now, we've got Trump encouraging police brutality, the Scaramucci mess, he's at war with his own AG, threatening to blow up the individual markets in the health insurance industry, blustering about North Korea, oh, and he's still under investigation by Mueller for, ya' know, his campaign's known contacts with the Russian government and his attempts to stifle an investigation into same.  And skinny repeal was just last week.  There is so much craziness that I can't fucking keep up.

2.  Living outside our models.  I like models.  I'm a math person.  If anyone bothers to dig through what I publish in the academic world, you'll see lots of nifty little equations because equations make me happy.  Technically, inequalities do too.  In fact, inequalities are often more useful than equations.  Models are at the core of my little academic world.  And yet, I find myself just kind of ranting here, often without a model.  Why?  Models are only useful when the conditions for the model apply.  I prefer to study Congress rather than the Presidency.  Why?  Better models.  So, for example, I was able to say that the Senate would be the more difficult chamber for Obamacare repeal.  That wasn't a difficult statement to make.  I know the rules of the House and the Senate, and I know their compositions.  Skinny repeal came very close to passage, and only failed because John McCain decided to have one of his unpredictable moments, but the Senate is the graveyard of legislation.  Models can work.  However, with the Presidency, models are weaker because we have fewer and weaker observations.  And with Trump... we got nothing.  He is so far outside of our experience that models don't work.  He is insane and stupid.  We can make some predictions about his behavior.  He will bully people, and generally act like a racist, misogynist fake-tough guy.  He will lie and brag.  But, he will also act erratically, and we have introduced a chaotic element to our political system that puts things so far outside the realm of normal political science that it is often hard to find ways to explain what is going on within the realm of political science.  We are living outside our models.

3.  Stupidity and insanity are real.  This kind of relates to 2, and I'll probably, eventually get around to something more elaborate on this (assuming I get a chance-- see 1), but I come from an economics background.  I do game-theoretic models in my real work.  Those models are "rational choice" models in which utility-maximizing individuals select the strategies that give them the best outcomes given the strategies other actors are using.  These models don't work, though, when people are either stupid, or crazy.  Donald Trump is not mentally competent, and he is so obviously not mentally competent that anyone who voted for him clearly isn't mentally competent because they voted to give nuclear weapons to someone who isn't mentally competent.  I'm just not going to sugar-coat this.  I would not make this statement about any other major party nominee in modern history.  I will make it about Donald Trump.  This complicates any discussion of politics for two reasons.  First, we don't have a systematic way to discuss either stupidity or insanity.  They are academically verboten topics.  Why?  See 2.  They are ad hominem.  They are.  If I call Donald Trump stupid or crazy, I am making an ad hominem attack.  That doesn't mean I'm wrong!  More importantly, Trump's mental incompetence has serious implications for domestic and international policy.  He is currently trying to decide whether or not to blow up the health insurance markets by denying payment through the risk corridors, and who knows what stupid shit he'll pull with North Korea?  Yes, it is ad hominem to call someone, "stupid."  That doesn't mean it isn't true.  Trump is mentally incompetent, and people voted to give a feeble-minded person nuclear weapons, even though they knew he was unqualified for the job, if you looked at the polls.  That's just fucking stupid, and it is hard to write about politics right now without talking about stupidity.

4.  Following from 3, civility norms in journalism and regular society preclude any rigorous analysis!  If I am prevented from pointing out stupidity where it undeniably exists, then we cannot talk about reality.  I'm going to quote Philip K. Dick here.  "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."  Pretending stupidity doesn't exist doesn't make it go away.  It just makes us unable to grapple with the real problem.  Political science has come up with plenty of jargon and rationalizations for stupidity.  "Rational ignorance," meaning that it is irrational to take the time to learn things because the utility value of the knowledge isn't great enough to outweigh the time it takes to learn it.  "Cognitive efficiency."  The effort it takes to think things through doesn't outweigh the utility value of utility-maximization, so you settle for something less because it's easier.  That kind of thing.  Don't think too hard or learn too much because it ain't worth it.  At the end of the day, though, a lot of people are just fucking stupid, and the dumbest one has control of the most powerful nuclear arsenal in history.  If norms of discourse prevent us from discussing this, that's a problem.  So here I am, all by my lonesome, writing a blog that few people read, and if I tried to say what I say here anywhere else, I'd be shut down because you can't talk about stupidity in civil discourse.  Trump isn't cognitively efficient.  He is cognitively deficient, and if we can't say that, well, Trump would call that "political correctness."

Basically, the political system right now is filled with stupid people doing stupid things that are way outside of our experience, and political scientists are supposed to pretend that we are seeing something at least vaguely normal by people capable of semi-rational thought because if we don't, then we are engaged in ad hominem attack.  And, there's so much insanity that we can't even keep up.  The Mooch didn't even last two weeks.

How are we, the academic community, supposed to put on affected voices of placid tone and pretend that we are observing events playing out within the bounds of scholarly wisdom?  I am sick of the phrase, "this is not normal."  The phrase does not convey the degree to which we have deviated from anything resembling past experience, and we, the academic community, are doing a disservice to the public by not acknowledging just how far out of control the political system is spinning.  The President admitted, on national tv, to firing the FBI director in order to stifle an investigation, and we have already just moved on from that.  When was the last time you heard a serious discussion of that, in the news or elsewhere?  Why?  Hey, The Mooch said, "cock!"  Let's all freak the fuck out about that!

Really?  We're freaking out because The Mooch said, "cock," and then got fired in 10 days?  Yes, that's nuts.  And it is so nuts that we have a hard time not talking about it.  But, the President fired the FBI director to stifle an investigation, and admitted it on national tv.  His son took a meeting with Russian agents in an attempt to collaborate with them during the campaign.  And his own party is shielding him from any consequences.

But, oh no!  COCK!


  1. Drezner on this point: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/07/31/why-is-trump-so-bad-at-strategy-its-time-for-some-game-theory-no-really/?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.59b868d871cc

    And, while he may not realize it, the cite for what Drezner is saying is Buchler and Jarvis, random trip to La Burrita, 1999? 2000?

    1. I hadn't actually seen that Drezner piece yet. Honestly. The irony is that Drezner couldn't quite go far enough for me. He couldn't just come right out and say what we know to be the case-- what he knows to be the case-- which is that Trump is mentally deficient. He makes a similar point about how game theory can't work when you are dealing with someone who can't really perform the mental tasks, but the WaPo really wouldn't take too kindly to Drezner just coming out and saying that Trump is a fuckin' idiot. The problem is that it's true.

      Or, maybe he's just crazy. Hard to say, and that was the point of our long-ago discussion at, let's just say La Burrita circa 2000 for lack of better record-keeping on either of our parts. There. Now it's on the internet, so it must be true. And if Snopes gets shut down, we're all fucked for facts anyway.

    2. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. This whole damned blog should be annotated. At least you are keeping with The Simpsons so that there is some consistency with the clip above... Nice work.