Tuesday, October 31, 2017

New feature: How fucked are they?

Today, I introduce a new, semi-regular feature to The Unmutual Political Blog.  "How Fucked Are They?"  In this feature, I will select political figures currently being discussed in the news, and assess... how fucked they are.  I shall place them on a scale from 0 to 10, with my highly trained, political science skills in assessing the degree of fuckedness of a political figure's situation.  Why 0 to 10?  In fact, I am currently teaching a Research Methods course, so I'll elaborate just a bit.  In political science, we like scales with odd numbers of categories in order to have a middle category.  So, a 0 to 10 scale gives me a middle category of 5, with eleven total categories.  Political science frequently relies on survey research with seven-point scales based on the idea that there is a limit to the degree of "precision" with which respondents can answer questions.  "Precision" has a technical definition in social science.  It is how fine-grained your measure is.  As a highly-trained scholar, capable of assessing fuckedness in a more precise manner than a lay-person, I am giving myself a more precise scale.  Thirteen would be right out.  I know my limits.  I know what I'm doing here.

Now, from a measurement theory perspective, this is clearly at least an "ordinal" measure, meaning that someone fucked to a level of 3 is more fucked than someone only fucked to a degree of 2, just as someone who is fucked at a level of 8 is more fucked than someone whose level of fuckedness is only a 7.  There is order to the categories.  However, is this an "interval-level" measure?  That is my goal.  An interval-level measure is one in which the gaps between the categories have equal magnitude.  My intent is for the difference in fuckedness between an 8-level fucked person and a 7-level fucked person to be the same as the difference between a 4-level fucked person and a 3-level fucked person.  My goal is for the gaps to be the same.

Moreover, I am building in a 0.  A true zero.  That should, hopefully, make this a "ratio" variable.  Someone who has a zero-level of fuckedness is totally unfucked.  So, the Buchler-eleven-point fuckedness scale will hopefully be a ratio-level variable assessing political figures' degree of fuckedness.  Don't try this at home, kids.  I'm a professional.

Why am I doing this?  Why not just assess probabilities of impeachment, conviction, etc., like the prediction markets?  You'll see.

With that in mind, here's what's going on.  Mueller quietly arrested George Papadopoulos, leaned on him to get him to flip on the Trump campaign a month ago, and he's been blabbing.  Then, Mueller announced Papadopoulos's cooperation the same day he arrested Manafort and Gates, and he's using Papadopoulos's Henry Hill-turn to get Manafort to flip too because now Manafort knows that people have already flipped on the campaign.  Here's what's so fucking cool about this.  We don't even know how much Papadopoulos has said, and because that was kept quiet for so long, Manafort has to sweat about whether or not anyone else has already flipped too!  This isn't even a real "prisoner's dilemma" because Manafort knows that they've already been ratted out by Papadopoulos.  He just doesn't know how much Mueller has, so he has to figure out how much he should say.  Mueller is a fucking badass.

With that in mind, I introduce what may be a new and continuing feature.  How fucked are they?

Donald Trump:  4

Trump has the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.  He can pardon himself, and he has the chutzpah to do it.  He can fire Mueller, and pardon anyone being pressured with charges...  Legally, Trump ain't goin' down.  Impeachment won't happen either.  The House is in Republican hands, and conviction in the Senate, even if the House passed articles of impeachment, would require a 2/3 supermajority.  Ain't gonna happen.  The 25th Amendment?  Also ain't gonna happen.  Keep in mind, also, that whatever illegal shit was going on, that's usually going to happen below the top level to keep the guy at the top insulated.  It looks, from Papadopoulos's testimony so far, like there was insulation anyway.  If nobody flips on Trump personally, he won't burn for this, and Trump surrounds himself with personal loyalists.

So, why do I put him at a 4?  He still has big problems.  This is "yugely" embarrassing for him, and that is what is most important to him.  His business empire depends entirely on his branding, and this is hurting his brand.  The ongoing scandal will hurt the GOP in 2018, and perhaps kill his 2020 chances.  He hates losing.  I can't put him over the 5-line if there is no chance whatsoever of impeachment or prison time, but given Trump's personal priorities, I'm putting him at a fuckedness of 4.

Paul Manafort:  7

Mueller has Paul Manafort dead to rights.  The FBI has had this motherfucker under surveillance for a long time because he is crooked as all fucking hell, and with the evidence against him, if this went to trial, with no intervention, he'd be totally fucked.

So, why not a 10?  Donald Trump.  If Trump thinks that he needs to pardon Manafort to keep that motherfucker quiet, he'll do it.  The question is one of timing.  Trials like the one Manafort is facing can get dragged out, and Trump doesn't want to pardon him now.  Shady pardons are best-done in lame-duck terms.  Trump wants to try to ride this out until after the 2020 election, then pardon anyone necessary right after the 2020 election.  So, the goal here would be for Manafort's lawyer to drag this out for a few years with delay after delay, and then get a pardon the day after the 2020 election.  That way, he gets away scot-free without having to flip.

Here's the problem.  Manafort's lawyers might not be able to delay things that long.  He might have to serve some time, and trust that Trump will come through with that pardon, and Trump is the least-trustworthy person on the face of the earth.

And here's the real genius of what Mueller did.  He only charged Manafort with actions unrelated to the 2016 campaign, which means that if Trump does issue a pardon, it looks extra-sleazy.  If Mueller had charged Manafort with something related to the campaign, Trump could have issued an immediate pardon, whined and lied about "fake news," and called it a day ending in "-y," but the White House has been saying that the arrest has nothing to do with him.  So... why pardon him?  See the beauty of Mueller's trap?  Like I said, Mueller is a fucking badass.

Manafort has to trust Trump, which is always a dubious prospect, and the two were never that close.  Clearly over a 5, particularly with what Mueller has on him independently of the 2016 campaign.  Trump's craven self-interest keeps him a few points below a 10.  I call this a 7, but we'll see how Trump responds going forward.  I've been going back and forth between a 7 and an 8.  Trump's cravenness pushes me towards a 7.

Michael Flynn:  2

Flynn is clearly next in Mueller's crosshairs.  He is not completely out of danger, but he is less fucked than either Trump or Manafort.  Why?  Simple.  Trump will absolutely pardon him.  Trump is completely enamored of Flynn.  He fired Comey probably at least in part because Comey wouldn't back off of Flynn.  If Trump thinks Flynn is in real jeopardy, Trump will pardon him, and he'd probably do it even if it weren't necessary to save his own skin.  Moreover, while Trump cares a great deal about his public image, putting him at a fuckedness of 4, Flynn isn't running for office or running a business based on public image, so he has less to worry about than Trump paradoxically.  That puts him at a lower level of danger than Trump.  Flynn is only half as fucked as Trump (a ratio-level variable!).  Once this is done, Flynn will be covered by what is conventionally known as "wingnut welfare."  The conservative lecture circuit will pay him $100,000 a pop to rant about whatever batshit crazy conspiracy theories he wants.  He just has to ride this out.  Yes, there is some danger because the dude broke some serious laws.  He was working as an unregistered foreign agent, at the very least.  But, if he can ride this out, he'll be fine.

Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ):  10

This dude is fucked.  This isn't related to Trump.  I'm just throwing him in here because, wow, this dude is fucked.

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

I'm going to exhaust my knowledge of regional musicians with this scandal...  Today, though, Crimean guitarist Enver Izmailov.  The title track from At a Ferghana Bazaar.  (Mis-spelled here).

Monday, October 30, 2017

Arrest day in Trumpland

I'm going to let Joe Biden handle this one.

That's right, Joe, this is.  Keeping in mind that we still don't know who will get arrested, or for what, this is a big fucking deal.  When one of the President's inner circle is arrested and charged with a federal crime in an investigation at this level, it is a big fucking deal.

Let's remember, though, that the only way this leads to any prison time for anyone is as follows:  if this is someone not too close to Trump personally (like Manafort) who did something not actually related to the campaign (like Manafort taking money from Russians and Ukrainians for personal reasons).

Flynn?  He's safe.  He has an absolute guarantee of a pardon.  Kushner, and everyone else closely tied to Trump?  Same deal.  Manafort is in real danger, though, because he isn't a close Trump associate, and he can be indicted for matters unrelated to the Trump campaign.  He was being watched before Trump hired him.  Trump hired him anyway.  Because Trump is a fucking moron (source:  Tillerson, Rex).  Does Trump pardon him to keep him quiet?  Eh...  I am skeptical of these kinds of things, but we'll see.

Regardless, even if it is just Manafort today, and for actions taken unrelated to the Trump campaign, that would still be, in Biden's words, "a big fucking deal."  This, then, becomes a test of the political system.

The President's former campaign manager gets arrested and charged with federal crimes (again, it might not be Manafort-- I'm just going with the safest hypothesis here).  How big a scandal is that?  When the President's whole schtick is that he'll hire the best people because he's a businessman?  A "yuge" one.  Will the political system respond in that manner?  No.  Why not?  Signals.  John Zaller strikes again.

Trump will scream about "fake news" and Hillary and voter fraud and probably something about chem-trails or whatever other shit he gets from Alex Jones.  The Republican Party will close ranks around Trump, especially if the only indictment is for Manafort's actions outside the Trump campaign.  The result, then, will be that voters receive signals running in opposing directions:  Democrats saying this is a major scandal, and Republicans calling it a nothingburger.  Unless...  Unless...

The neutral press will have a burden upon them.  How do they cover something that will be, objectively, a major scandal, but with one entire party telling them that black is white, up is down, and 2+2=5 (hello, Mr. Orwell)?  So far, they have pretty much failed.  In the 2016 campaign, due to media failures, the electorate incorrectly perceived Trump as more honest than Clinton even though Trump is, by far, the most dishonest politician we have ever seen (here is his current PolitiFact scorecard, problematic though their method may be).

How will the neutral press handle this?  I don't know.  If they treat this the way they treated the 2016 campaign, though, and permit the GOP to assert that the arrest of someone in the President's inner circle is an insignificant "fake news" event, then that will not only inhibit our ability to respond to this scandal, but demonstrate the political system's inability to respond to any real political crisis.

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

So many choices this morning!  I thought about going with Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Prison Cell Blues," or maybe T-Bone Walker's "Prison Blues."  Blind Blake had a few good ones I could have chosen.  But you know what?  Too obvious.  I still have to do a twofer today, though, 'cuz... damn!  I just can't pass this up!

OK, so first, we've got someone you probably don't know, but should.  Tony Joe White, "They Caught The Devil And Put Him In Jail In Eudora Arkansas," from his self-titled debut.  Then, thank you, youtube, the complete album from BB King-- Live in Cook County Jail!  (His best album-- even better than Live at the Regal).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Polling on the state of modern American politics

There is an interesting new poll from the Washington Post that deserves some discussion (link here).  The headline, justifiably making the rounds, is that 71% of respondents say that politics have reached a dangerous new low point in the modern era, with 39% saying that this is actually the new normal.  Basically, the political system has become a shit-show.

I'm not sure I can pinpoint the exact moment the show jumped the shark, but it is difficult to disagree.  However, I'd like to dig a little deeper into that survey.

First, let's point out the obvious.  Um... Trump won, and 51% of respondents thought that Trump deserved "a lot" of the blame for dysfunction, and another 34% thought he deserved "some."  Only 14% held him blameless.  Trump likes to lie about having "won the popular vote," (and I like to remind you that "the popular vote" is a bullshit concept), but he did a lot better than 14%!  In other words, something's wrong here.

Remember Trump bragging about how "presidential" he could be, and how easy it would be?  Here's one of those clips.

Anyone who actually thought he was capable of being "presidential" was... well, they were exactly what Rex Tillerson called Trump.  Was that comment "presidential?"  Is anything I say "presidential?"  No, but I'm just the peanut gallery.  However, if you recall the first couple of months of Trump's Presidency, columnists would shower him with praise (golden words of praise!) and say that he was finally becoming "presidential" every time he read from a teleprompter.

Trump has been, in his first almost-year in office, exactly who and what he always was.  He has, in Bob Corker's words, debased the nation, and apparently around 71% of the country feel debased.

What did people think they were getting?  This is Trump.  This is what he does.  And of course, 86% understand that he deserves at least some of the blame.  How much?  We'll get to that.  So, let's dig into the survey and talk about where the blame really should be placed for the fact that American politics are now a total shit-show.

I first have to point out "uncompetitive congressional elections."  35% of respondents thought that the phenomenon deserves "a lot" of the blame, and another 51% thought the phenomenon deserves "some."  I made my earlier career by writing about how competitive elections are actually bad for democracy.  Short version:  in a close election, that means a lot of voters are necessarily not getting their way.  That's... bad!  The most simple, important point from my first book was that an election isn't like a market, so you can't just say that competition is good because, yay competition!  (That's actually a common analogy in a lot of scholarship).  Instead, an election is a way to hire or fire an employee.  Flipping a coin (an election with uncertainty) is a terrible way to make hiring and firing decisions.  If you have a good employee, renew that employee's contract.  Deterministically!  If you have a bad employee... fire his ass.  Deterministically!  So, no.  Competitive elections are bad.  (M'kay?).  It's a lot more complicated than that because elections are complicated and it's a book that I'm summarizing flippantly, but you get the basic point.

Moving on, though.  Take a look at the top and the bottom of the list.  They... are backwards.  Respondents blamed money first, and "average voters" last.

Look, this is hard.  You have been inundated with the message that money has corrupted everything about politics, and it's so cool to sound cynical.  This is actually the subject of scholarly research, though.  We can study this.  We do study this in political science.  Do legislators who receive campaign contributions from Group X vote differently from legislators who don't receive campaign contributions from Group X?  Yes.  Problem:  Of course Ted Cruz gets money from different people than Elizabeth Warren.  They have nothing in common (aside from over 99% of their DNA...).  The question is, what happens when two ideologically similar legislators, from similar constituencies, etc., face a vote, and one gets campaign contributions, and the other doesn't.  Then do they vote differently?  Nope.  They pretty much vote the same way.  Implication?  It is really hard to buy influence, and measuring that influence is really hard.  Only when a lot of specific conditions are met can campaign contributions buy policy influence, and measuring that influence is haaaaard.  What can money buy?  Access.  Give a legislator money, and he'll talk to you, and it's pretty much as simple as that.  The newest cool article on that was by Joshua Kalla & David Broockman-- "Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Offices-- A Randomized Field Experiment" (American Journal of Political Science Volume 60, Issue 3, pp 545-558).  Basically, try to set up a meeting with congressional offices.  Randomize whether or not you tell them that the meeting is with a campaign contributor, and see what happens.  Yup.  They are more likely to talk to you if you are a contributor.  That doesn't mean they'll do anything for you, but they'll talk to you.  Everything else about the influence of money is really hard to demonstrate.  Chapter 8, in this book, co-authored with Matt Jarvis, attempts some econometric tricks, but it is really hard to tease out the influence of money.  So, where should money be on that list?  Pretty damned low, in my scholarly opinion.

In contrast, where should "average voters" be?  Absolute top.  Number 1, no question.

Donald Trump deserves a hell of a lot of blame for debasing our nation, as Bob Corker put it.  Who let him?  "Average voters."  By voting for him.  We have a dysfunctional Congress-- House and Senate.  Here's the line I've been recycling for years.  A group of lions is called "a pride."  A group of crows is called "a murder."  A group of assholes?  "A Congress."  Who elected those assholes?  "Average voters."  What about "the media?"  Well, there are a lot of institutions in "the media," and I don't want to lump Roll Call in with Breitbart, or even the easily distracted, but not explicitly partisan network news shows.  However, any media organization that promotes dysfunction does so because people pay attention to them.  Specifically, people who vote.  "Average voters."  In the case of Breitbart, the audience isn't "average," but in the case of the worthless network news programs?  Yup, "average."

Social media?  Um... does "blogspot" count?  Nope, nobody reads this damned thing.  Phew!  I'm safe!  I'll read that as a general attack on shit like Facebook and Twitter, which play a central role in the dissemination of fake news (by the standard definition, rather than Trump's use of the term).  I use neither Facebook nor Twitter.  You know who does?  Say it with me... "average... voters."  If those same... "average voters" took the time to read real news sources rather than being lazy fuckin' bums, social media wouldn't be able to disseminate fake news.

Other than that, Obama?  Insert laugh here.  The two opposing parties?  This brings up the question of party symmetry, for which I will reference Mann & Ornstein's book.  This ain't symmetric.  Party activists?  That's hard to separate from the parties themselves...  That can get really into the weeds, and I'm not even going to start on "political correctness" in this post.

At the end of the day, though, the forces doing the most damage are empowered by "average voters."  If "average voters" hadn't voted for Donald Trump, Trump wouldn't be President, and he wouldn't be debasing the nation.  If average voters didn't elect assholes to Congress, we wouldn't be staring at an alien monolith on Capitol Hill, saying, "my god, it's full of assholes!"  If average voters read real newspapers instead of just whatever shit came across Facebook and Twitter, they wouldn't buy into whatever bullshit fake news stories circulate around.  If average voters paid attention to real news stories rather than clickbait and inflammatory stories, the "serious" news organizations, such as they are, would do their jobs properly based on the market incentives provided to them by... "average voters."

And even if money could buy off politicians, attentive voters could fire their fuckin' asses if they didn't like the policies that resulted.

There isn't one problem in the political system that couldn't be fixed by "average voters" if those voters were capable of carrying out the duties required of them in a democracy, and there is not one problem in the political system today that does not have its roots in average voters' failures.

As H.L. Mencken wrote, "democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it, good and hard."  According to the new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, voters think they're getting it, good and hard.  Yay, democracy!

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

Bad Livers, "Shit Creek," from Delusions of Banjer.  Greatest album title ever.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Today's side-note on Flynn

My earlier post today focused on the likelihood that Manafort is the guy in Mueller's crosshairs, but I also mentioned that the next-most-likely target is Flynn.  Back in March, Trump tried to give himself a grade for his early Presidency, and of course, he will always give himself an A for everything because... come on, he's Trump.  I posted this.  This was months before the Comey firing, Mueller's appointment, and everything else, and yet, what did I call Trump's worst mistake?  Flynn.  It was obvious even then.  Whether it is Manafort or Flynn facing charges now, though, let's just reflect on the fact that we can have a legitimate debate over which Trump crony/crook is about to get charged...  because we don't actually know who goes down first.  That's another scary aspect here.  There are so many crooks that we don't know which one is being charged this weekend.

Pause, and reflect.

Mueller is bringing criminal charges: what that means

Robert Mueller is filing criminal charges against... probably Paul Manafort.  Best bet is Manafort, since he was told to expect an indictment a while back.  We know he was wiretapped, and the whole shebang.  Someone could get frog-marched Monday morning, and Manafort is the safest bet right now.

Yup, gotta bring up Ben Bradlee again.  As Executive Editor of the Washington Post, he wanted people to open up the paper every morning and say, "holy shit!"  And good, old, Nelson Polsby, my grad school advisor, used to say that it was our job, in academia, to tell the press, "no, not holy shit."  Instead, we should say something about how this is normal and expected and here's why this fits within our nifty, little social scientific models, or something like that.  And I'm getting pretty fed up with typing this, but...

Holy shit.

Mueller is bringing criminal charges.  Probably against Trump's former campaign manager, over Russia-related matters.  We'll have to wait to see the exact nature of the charges, but we are in holy shit territory unless this is the federal equivalent of a parking ticket.  Such things exist.  There are campaign finance violations in which a campaign accepts a set of contributions that collectively go over the legal limit because each individual contribution was smaller than the limit, or something like that, but that's not what Mueller was charged with investigating.  We'll see what the charges are, and I'll reserve some judgment based on that, but for this morning, I'll write more about how we, in the political system, respond.

That's what's important.  Best bet right now is that the President's 2016 campaign manager is about to be criminally indicted for something related to Russia based on an investigation into Russian meddling in the election and the question of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign.  Divorced from any modern political mentality, that would be a scandal of almost unfathomable proportion.  A hostile foreign government having criminal ties to the former campaign manager of the current President, and having colluded with that manager to elect that President?  (Remember, Manafort was in on that meeting with Don Jr. and the Russian spy too...)  Think about reading this sequence in a history book, and comparing it to Watergate.  A break-in to steal some campaign documents doesn't even begin to compare to this.  Think about this in comparison to Bill Clinton lying about a blowjob.

If Manafort is charged with something directly related to the Trump campaign rather than just his own personal criminal activities, then the scale of what is about to happen is almost beyond comprehension.

The flip side of this is that Manafort himself is an incompetent criminal, and he might be indicted for purely personal criminal activities.  We do need to keep that in mind for right now.  (Again, assuming this is Manafort).  If that's the case, then the scandal is still there-- Trump's campaign manager was a crook, and that should be a major scandal too!  But, let's focus on the possibility that this is tied to Russian collusion.

The basic problem is that there is no historical precedent in America for any scandal of this type or on this scale.  Bribery, we know.  We have history and precedent, so we know how to respond, when evidence arises.  (It rarely does, but that's another matter...)  We as a country, though, are standing around staring at each other with a mix of reactions.  Anyone following the news without wearing some serious partisan blinders is regularly horrified by Donald Trump.  Retiring Republican politicians like Flake and Corker can speak out, Tillerson knows the deal, and some of the more honest Republican pundits will call Trump on his shit, but most people don't follow the news that closely.  If you are reading a political scientist's blog, you are following the news more closely than most.

That's why most people are grossly ignorant about politics.  Here's a simple demonstration.  In the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, we asked respondents if they could identify John Roberts.  Only 26.5% correctly identified him.  (Hopefully, if you are reading this, you know that he is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court-- a rather important person).  Most people don't follow politics, so they don't know shit about shit.

In the absence of knowledge, what do they do?  They take cues.  I know enough about history to know how unprecedented this Trump shit is without taking cues from others.  What about people who don't follow the news closely?  You know, the people who just get the occasional Facebook message, or turn on the local news in the background while trying to cook dinner for some screaming children?  They need cues from others.

Who sends those cues?  Mostly partisan opinion leaders.  That would be a combination of elected officials and media figures.  On the Democratic side, mostly they are a bunch of little chickenshits who don't want to go too far because they are afraid of a backlash.  Republicans pushed too far on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and in the 1998 midterm election, the President's party gained seats, which isn't supposed to happen.  Democrats are, as ever, afraid of their own shadows, and don't want to push too far, so they are leery about sending strong signals about Russia.

Republican opinion "leaders?"  Even aside from Trump and his mindless, repetitive chants of "fake news," the rest of the party has adopted the following mantra.

I have explained this in previous posts.  If Trump goes down, he takes the entire party with him because the Republican Party is Donald Trump, and Donald Trump is the Republican Party, as far as most people are concerned.  So, the party rallies around him.  They back him on every bit of bullshit he ever spews, defend him from every accusation, and in the process, make everything look like a partisan dispute that cannot be parsed by any objective observer.  The party thereby protects itself from electoral backlash in 2018 and 2020.  They remember Watergate (or at least, they've read about it), and they care far more about preventing future electoral losses than anything Trump either has done or might do.

What that means, though, is that the signals being sent within the political system consist of relatively tepid signals from Democratic leaders regarding Russia, and total support from Republicans.  Even Flake, Corker and McCain aren't going after Trump on Russia, and I doubt they will, no matter what happens with the Mueller investigation.

The result is that the political system contains signals running in multiple directions.  Yup, we're getting at John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion yet again.  Public opinion doesn't shift dramatically without unidirectional messages, and that won't happen.  America has no context for a scandal like this.  That is precisely why signals are so important, and precisely why it is so important for us to note how bizarre it is that the country will continue standing around, mouths agape, uncertain, acting as though everything is normal because nobody knows how else to behave in the absence of unidirectional signals.

Of course, maybe Manafort will be charged for purely personal criminal behavior.  That should still be treated as a "yuge" scandal.  He was the President's campaign manager!  Or, maybe it will be someone else.  If not Manafort, Flynn would be the next best bet.  Or, maybe Carter Page, or Kushner, or... well, we'll see, but Manafort was told to expect an indictment.  Anyway, this is still a holy-shit-moment.

What is most noteworthy, though, is the inability of the political system to recognize what a holy-shit-moment this is because unidirectional signals aren't being sent.  Damn it, Zaller, why do you have to be right about this?*

*Zaller was a co-author of The Party Decides, which was a lousy book.  If that book had been correct, Trump never would have gotten the Republican nomination in the first place.

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

This one's for you, Paul Manafort!  Pierce Edens, "Jailhouse," from Party Dress.  There is another version on Pierce's live album, which is harder-rocking, and less twangy.  Quite good, but today is Saturday, so I'm going with the twangier version.  Incidentally, the pedal steel player's name is Matt Smith.  The 11th Doctor!

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

A little more fusion/funk than normal tonight, but hey, I gotta make references.  Bernie Worrell, "OK, You Can Leave Now," from Improviscario.  Bernie could play jazz too.

What mattered while you were distracted this week: taxes and healthcare

Last weekend, I posted this about Trump's JFK document tease, and unsurprisingly, it was a nothingburger.  I've never bought into the conspiracy theories about the assassination, and I didn't expect any real news.  I mused that Trump might leak something that makes the CIA or FBI look bad because he wants to discredit them, and hey!  Trump put out something about the CIA trying to put out a hit on Castro.  Did that have anything whatsoever to do with the Kennedy assassination?  Nope.  Why put it out?  Maybe I was just right, and Trump is trying to engage in a stupid public relations campaign against the FBI and the CIA because they are looking into him...

Still, as predicted, the documents themselves were pretty much pointless.  We know pretty much what we did before about the Kennedy assassination, and the whole thing was a stupid, pointless, Trumpian spectacle, like everything Trump-related.  Unfortunately, that's basically America right now.  Yay, us!  U-S-A!  U-S-A!

And while this was happening, two important things happened in Congress.  First, they passed a budget resolution, which is the procedural hurdle for the Republicans' tax cut plan.  Remember that the GOP's plan is to use "budget reconciliation" because budget reconciliation bills have a built-in time limit for debate.  That means no cloture vote is necessary to end debate, so no filibusters.  With budget reconciliation, the majority party can pass bills in the Senate with 51 votes (50 plus the VP, when they have him, which they do).  Using budget reconciliation requires passing a budget resolution first, which is just a procedural vote, but the procedural vote contains the general contours of a budget plan, and that agreement indicates general agreement on a plan going forward.

Remember, there are a lot of different taxes that could be cut, and there is a limit on how much the Republicans have decided to cut.  This is a zero-sum exercise.  More corporate tax cuts mean fewer income tax cuts.  More estate tax cuts mean fewer capital gains tax cuts, and so forth.  Once the GOP puts a cap on total deficit increases within the resolution, they start fighting each other, which they have, and that's why it's kind of a challenge.  But, they passed the budget resolution, and they are highly likely to pass some set of tax cuts, after pulling out their guns, and having a really tense standoff, Quentin Tarantino-style.  (Or, I guess, Hong Kong-style, if you want to call Tarantino a rip-off).

 The other thing:  I've been writing periodically about the Alexander-Murray "plan" to restore the cost-sharing subsidies to the health insurance companies, which Trump cut off a little while ago in one of his snits.  I've been pretty uncertain about its future.  Orrin Hatch-- a guy who used to tout his friendship and ability to cooperate with Ted Kennedy-- is now putting together a purely Republican counterproposal.  Alexander-Murray is now probably dead.

First, you need to know about Orrin Hatch.  He really did used to be a bipartisan kind of guy.  Conservative, yes, but bipartisan.  He really did used to work with Ted Kennedy.  He'd never be stupid enough to get in the passenger seat of a car with Ted Kennedy, 'cuz... well...  Chappa-fuckin'-quiddick!  (No, never forget that Ted Kennedy murdered a woman in a drunk driving incident and got way with it because in America, we don't punish people named "Kennedy").  Orrin Hatch doesn't do anything bipartisan anymore.  Why not?  Two words:  "Bob," and, "Bennett."  Those words really shouldn't have much relevance to any politician outside the state of Utah, but Orrin Hatch is the Senior Republican Senator from... Utah!

What's the deal with Utah, aside from beautiful scenery and, um... mormons?  (No further comment...)  Utah has some unique nominating rules.  In order to get onto the primary ballot, your party nominating convention has to put you there.  Bob Bennett pissed off his party elders by collaborating with a Democratic Senator (Ron Wyden from Oregon) on... healthcare!  So, back in 2010, the Utah GOP yanked his name from the primary ballot!  That's how Mike Lee got into the Senate.  People who don't actually understand electoral rules and processes will list Bob Bennett as a guy who lost a primary for not being a pure conservative, but he didn't lose a primary.  His name was yanked from the primary ballot by Utah's bizarre electoral rules.

The same rules that constrain Orrin Hatch.  And now, on healthcare, Orrin Hatch is doing what all those conservative Utah mormons do:  teabaggin' like a pro!  This is the same guy who used to brag about his ability to work with Ted Kennedy.  Coincidence?  Nope.  There was a clear point at which Orrin Hatch... let's say "transitioned."  2010.  Bob Bennett.  That incident scared the fucking shit out of Orrin Hatch.

And there's more going on here.  Remember Graham-Cassidy?  Immediately after "skinny repeal" failed, Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander started working on bipartisan fixes to Obamacare.  Then, when it looked like Graham-Cassidy might have a chance to pass, Lamar Alexander cut off negotiations with Patty Murray to try to give Graham-Cassidy that chance.  Why?  Because he's a backstabbing sack of fucking shit.  Bipartisanship is a last resort for him.  He'll choose partisanship if he has an option.

Orrin Hatch is trying to create that option now.  If Orrin Hatch's plan starts gaining any momentum at all, Lamar Alexander will do exactly what he did before.  Stab Patty Murray in the back like the rat fucking bastard he is.

When Alexander started talking to Murray again, I made a comment about how puzzled I was that Murray was willing to trust him in this post.  Don't fucking trust him, Murray.  He stabbed you in the back before, and he'll do it again.  If Hatch gets any momentum for a partisan plan, Alexander will do exactly what he did with Graham-Cassidy.  He'll shut down negotiations with you and work on a partisan plan.

This is the stuff that matters.  The JFK document nonsense?  Distraction.  Don't get distracted.  It is easy and tempting.  I fall prey to it myself on a regular basis, but important things are happening, and Trump is such a shit-show that it is hard to turn away, but more important things are happening.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Assorted thoughts about Clinton's campaign funding "the Russian dossier"

I'm still trying to wrap my brain around this.  I will reiterate a comment I made yesterday on hypocrisy.  Any Democrats-- or other Trump opponents (and I take a back seat to nobody in my Trump hatred)-- who are bothered by Russian meddling in the 2016 election, or by Don Jr.'s meeting with a Russian spy with the intent to gather dirt on Clinton need to think seriously about this.

A former British spy compiled a "dossier" containing dirt on Trump.  It looks like the Clinton campaign and the DNC helped fund that research.  Is there hypocrisy here?  I consider hypocrisy a high crime.  There is, however, a difference between being an ex-spy in British terms and an ex-spy in Russian terms.  And hey!  An ex-British spy!  I'm referencing an ex-British spy on a blog called "The Unmutual!"  Get it?  No, of course not.  Never mind.

Anyway, ex-FSB is still FSB.  Steele, on the other hand, really may have been just working on his own, or as a contractor.  Most likely at this point, just working as a contractor.  If that's the case, he was a non-citizen working as a contractor.  In that case, this was opposition research conducted by a non-citizen.  Maybe sketchy, but different from the other possibility...

If Steele was actually working with the blessing of, or support of the British government, then the production of the dossier would have been exactly what Democrats are accusing Putin of doing.  You can't complain about one from a process perspective without levying the same complaint on the other.  To do so is hypocrisy, and I fucking hate hypocrisy.

So, maybe Steele was just a contractor, who happened to be an ex-British spy, in which case the production of the dossier was just odd.  Then again, maybe Clinton was getting support from the Brits while Trump was getting support from the Russians.  What is this, the French-Indian War?  (Actually, to reference Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series, in "Timeline 3," New Britain, which controls us, is at war with the French Empire, which has its capitol in St. Petersburg, so let's go with that).

Basic point:  if you care about foreign government intervention, be consistent about it.  I really do want to know if Steele had support from the British government.  Right now, that's a legitimate question to ask.  Do I trust congressional Republicans to look into that?  Fuck no.  Mueller?  Maybe.  One way or another, though, I want to know.

That's just idle wondering, though.  Here's where I'm really stuck.  Clinton's campaign looks like it helped pay for the dossier.  Yet, it didn't get released until January.  After the election.  Right before the inauguration, Buzzfeed decided to publish the thing, which had been floating around as a rumor-kind-of-deal, and the intelligence agencies had it long-prior, but the Clinton campaign paid for the dossier and then... what happened to it?

Here's the thing about opposition research.  You pay somebody to do research, you find dirt, and then you fucking use it!  What did the Clinton campaign do with the dossier?  Float it around quietly?!  Why?  What the fuck were they doing with it and why?  This is what I don't get.  Why not use it?

So, I'm just going to speculate.  No fancy-schmancy political science today.  Just idle punditry.

1)  Clinton's Shakespearean flaw (one of many, actually-- she pretty much sucks) is hubris.  In 2008, she handed the nomination to Obama by assuming she would win everything on "super-Tuesday" (the day on which lots of states held their contests), and didn't put together campaigns in any of the states immediately after super-Tuesday.  Obama did.  So, he racked up a shit-ton of delegates immediately after super-Tuesday, and his delegate lead from that is what carried him to victory in 2008.  You may remember some stupid shit about how Clinton won the primaries and Obama won the caucuses.  Nope.  Those post-super-Tuesday states just happened to be caucus states.  It was just Clinton hubris.  Flash-forward to 2016.  She gets the dossier, but assumes she'll win.  So, she sits on it.  Then, she loses.  Evidence for the hubris hypothesis?  The 2016 Democratic Convention.  During the convention, I was puzzled by how little time they spent going after Trump for what a shitbag he is.  They were handed an opponent who is the most vile, reprehensible, unqualified pile of toxic waste in the history of politics, and the convention was a bunch of touchy-feely crap.  Why?  'Cuz...  'Cuz they didn't think they had to go after Trump.  Clinton hubris.

2)  The dossier had a bunch of claims without the supporting evidence.  The Clinton campaign wasn't sure how to use the claims.  This was particularly true of, for example, the golden shower nonsense, which was almost certainly false anyway.  From a practical sense, what were they supposed to do?  Clinton didn't know.  The dossier itself was opposition research, but the opposition research document itself didn't help without the supporting evidence, so in the absence of a way to use it, they just sat on it.  Now, this wouldn't have stopped the Republicans.  The GOP spent years having its members split between those who openly embraced birtherism and those who just gave it a wink and a nod, but perhaps the Clinton campaign just didn't know what to do.  So, they did nothing.

3)  The dossier was floating around in media circles, and perhaps the Clinton people (or Steele himself) floated it, but nobody wanted to cover it until Buzzfeed released it.  Clinton's relationship with the media was pretty damned hostile, and had been for decades.  Perhaps Clinton's campaign had hoped that the leaked dossier would get coverage on its own, and was just frustrated that nobody talked about it until after the election, when Buzzfeed decided to publish it.  While the media were (yes, "were") openly hostile to Trump during the pussy-grabbing affair, their long-running hostility to Hillary Clinton dates back decades.  Furthermore, serious journalistic outlets like the New York Times have fact-checking standards which would make coverage of an unsubstantiated document like the dossier a dubious prospect at best.  Buzzfeed is just a joke of an outlet, so they didn't give a fuck whether or not they could verify anything.  Then, once Buzzfeed did put it out there, the dossier's release itself became a story, which real outlets could cover.

Anyway, I'm still thinking through this stuff.  That's why this post is a bunch of speculative mumbo-jumbo.  Whether or not Clinton paid for the dossier, though, doesn't have any bearing on whether or not the claims in it were true.  Some of it has been verified, and some of it is almost certainly bullshit, like the golden shower stuff.  Trump's people have had a disturbing number of contacts with the Russians, we know the Russians actively intervened to try to help Trump win, people around Trump, like Flynn, were susceptible to blackmail and Trump was warned about that by intelligence agencies, Manafort is about to be indicted, Don Jr. was meeting with a Russian spy, Trump fired Comey for looking into this, and that's just what we know so far before seeing anything Mueller has dug up.  There is some scary shit going on.  I want to know more about the origins of the dossier, but I am more concerned with how much of the dossier is true because as long as Steele wasn't working on behalf of the British government, then what Clinton did was just opposition research and not at all the same thing as Don Jr.'s meeting, which was an attempt to secure information from the Russian government.

Let's not lose sight of the big picture here.  The big picture is that the President of the United States fired the Director of the FBI for looking into ties between his people and Russia.  That is obstruction of justice.  It is a federal crime, and impeachable, even if all Trump was doing was trying to hide something embarrassing rather than criminal.  And, the most plausible way to influence Trump is financial, and we still know little about his finances because unique among modern presidents, Trump has decided to keep his finances secret.  After his idiot son told everyone that his investors are Russian.  The same people we know were actively meddling in the election to get him into office.

Bigger picture here...

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How Members of Congress talk about Presidents

In the latest episode of Corker versus Trump, the retiring Senator from Tennessee who has recently developed what is sometimes known as a retirement-spine, pointed out that Trump will be remembered primarily for "the debasement of our nation."  Watch this.

I'll make my usual comment of annoyance that Corker won't just come out and say "lie."  Come on, people.  Just call a lie, a "lie."  Anyway, let's take a moment to reflect on the fact that this is what the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee says about the President.  Of his own party.

But not too long of a moment because along came Jeff Flake.  Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) is retiring basically because he can't fucking stand Trump.  He won't cozy up to that piece of fucking shit to win a primary, and he thinks Trump is "dangerous to a democracy."

Let that one sink in.  A Senator of the President's own party is saying that what the President does to the system is "dangerous to a democracy."  Holy shit.  I've written about Ben Bradlee, "holy shit" moments before.  This is one of those.

I've been fascinated by the wackos in Congress for a long time.  Corker isn't a wacko, and neither is Flake.  Michele Bachmann... now there was a wacko.  I miss her.  I even wrote a paper inspired by Bachmann and those of her ilk!  She made a name for herself with this appearance on Hardball with Chris Matthews, just before the 2008 election.

Oh, and that youtube caption has a typo in it.  I'm spelling her name correctly.  It's one l in "Michele."  Anyway, this kind of talk is what we expect to hear from the extreme end of the opposing party in Congress.  Michele Bachmann was an early star in the "tea party," not because she had two brain cells to rub together, and not because she was any more ideologically pure than anyone else in the increasingly ideologically homogeneous GOP at the time.  No, Bachmann just talked shit about Obama.

And she wasn't alone in doing it.  The biggest thing that separated the Michele Bachmanns, the Allen Wests and the other early tea partiers from regular, old-fashioned conservatives was just the kind of shit that they would go on tv to say.  Then, we had Joe Wilson, the Representative from South Carolina, who decided to yell, "you lie!" at Obama during an address to a joint session to Congress.  Democrats were aghast.  Republican leaders pretended to be aghast, but gave him a wink and a nod while he raised money off of it after a fake, pseudo-apology.

You know who didn't talk that kind of shit about Obama?  Democrats.  Republicans didn't talk this way about George W. Bush.  Democrats talked some shit about Clinton during the Lewinsky affair, but only to condemn adultery and lying.  None declared Clinton unfit for the Presidency, nor "a danger to democracy."  None voted to impeach him in the House, nor to convict in the Senate, nor did any do what Corker did, and say it was a mistake ever to support him in his election.

To find intra-party criticism on par with what we are hearing from Corker and Flake, we have to go back to the 1970s.  While modern parties don't always get along with their presidents (see: Carter, Jimmy), they don't call their presidents "a danger to democracy."  However, during Watergate, it was Republicans turning against Nixon that forced his resignation.  As I keep saying, though, that ain't gonna happen en masse because Trump has an electoral bomb strapped to him with a dead-man trigger, and the entire GOP is chained to him.  He goes boom, the entire party relives the 1974/1976 election sequence.

That's why the only Republicans willing to point out what every single one of them with a working brain knows are the ones who are retiring (like Corker), dying (like McCain), or willing to retire to let them speak the truth (like Flake).  Trump will retain the support of his party, no matter what because of Watergate.  And the party was just given the greatest gift ever.  The Washington Post reports that Clinton and the DNC paid for "the Russian dossier."  You know, the one put together by the British spy about how Trump may be the subject of Russian blackmail?  With something about golden showers?  That one.  Is the WaPo story true?  Does that make anything in the dossier less likely to be true?  As far as the politics are concerned, that won't matter.  This will unify the GOP around Trump even more.  There could be an actual tape of Trump handing national security secrets to the Russians, and it wouldn't matter...

Oh, wait, we know he did that.  In the Oval Office...  Fuck.

We have no idea what Trump's real relationship with Russia is, and the origin of "the dossier" tells us little about it.  If Steele had been actively working for MI6 at the time, on behalf of the British government, to help Clinton, this would be... kinda like that meeting between Don Jr. and the Russian spy, though, and let's be blunt about that.  I have zero tolerance for hypocrisy.  If this was contract work, we are in murkier territory, but let's keep an eye on this...

Anyway, what we know is that a lot of Republicans in Congress hate and distrust the President.  Of their own party.  But, they are too cowardly to speak out unless they are dying or retiring.  People retired under Obama, and nobody talked this way about Obama on the Democratic side.  In fact, even the "establishment" Republicans didn't talk about Obama the way Corker and Flake talk about Trump.

Bob Corker and Jeff Flake are talking about Trump with a level of contempt that one expects from the fringe of a party, towards the opposing party.  Instead, it is coming from the sane wing of the President's own party.

However, nobody within the party can bring themselves to say it unless they know they won't be there after January, 2019.  There are two sides to this coin.  First, most of the party knows what a worthless, vile and incompetent piece of fucking shit Donald Trump is.  They know how badly they fucked up.  If they could go back in time and fight like hell to get anyone... literally anyone on the ballot as the 2016 Republican nominee, they would do it.  The sane wing of the party, such as it is, is miserable right now.

The flip side is they think they have lost.  They don't know how to beat Trump within the GOP.  Trump has won the battle within the GOP.  He is an idiotic, racist, misogynist demagogue who doesn't know jack fucking shit about shit.  Paul Ryan has called him a textbook racistMitch McConnell laughs at TrumpWorld leaders joke about Trump because they know what a clueless dipshit he is, and the CIA keeps intelligence from him because they don't fucking trust himThe Doomesday Clock was actually moved to 2.5 minutes to midnight (yes, it's a real thing), quite seriously because of Donald Fucking Trump.  Why?  He's nuts.  The American Psychoanalytic Association has relaxed its rules to let members comment on how fucking nuts Trump isFormer Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, James Stavridis puts the odds of Trump starting a nuclear war with North Korea at around 10%.  Because Trump is that fucking stupid.

But while Trump's approval rating overall is sitting at 36% (a record low for a president at this point), the GOP base still loves that festering pile of infectious human waste.  So, what's a craven incumbent to do?

Retire, die, or be brought to heel, apparently.

Where does this end?  Who knows?  For now, let's just keep in mind that the contempt for the President we are hearing from Corker, Flake and McCain is a level of contempt normally reserved for the fringe element of the opposing party.  Of course, they are saying out loud what a lot of the rest really believe, but are too cowardly to say publicly.  And that is the real problem with the GOP right now.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Follow-up: why conspiracies don't work

Over the weekend, I wrote a post about the possible release of JFK documents, with a diatribe about the inefficacy of conspiracies.  All it takes is one person, and the conspiracy falls apart.  In particular, I pointed out how silly climate denialism is, based on the absurdity of proposing conspiracies among academics.  We aren't the conspiratorial types.

Since then, I noticed this story, demonstrating my point perfectly.  The New York Times reported that the EPA has pulled their scientists from climate change talks.  This is what it looks like when you try to put pressure on scientists to change their interpretation of the data.  This is what it looks like when you try to put together a conspiracy.  The idiots who think climate change is a conspiracy are motivated by the belief that they can just do the same thing in reverse.  So, they try, and this is what happens.

Do you see what happens, Larry?!

To paraphrase The Dude, I may be an asshole, but I'm not wrong.

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

I picked Bombino's Azel as one of 2016's best albums on this blog, but for a musician from Niger today, I'm digging a little deeper.  I listen to a bunch of Tuareg musicians, and I'll go with Group Inerane today.  "Kuni Majagani," from Guitars from Agadez.  Bombino himself was the one who recorded "Volume 2" in the "Guitars from Agadez" series, and there are a few more from Group Inerane.  Good stuff.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Further adventures in "Donald Trump is an idiot"

Hopefully, you don't watch any of the talk shows.  Maria Bartiromo interviewed Trump for Fox Business News (Fox has a business news channel?), and Trump... wow.

Anyway, don't watch it.  Here is a link to a transcript.  If you read the whole thing, or attempt to watch the interview, this will happen.

I'm just going to reference one piece of it.  Bartiromo observed that Trump had nothing to gain by feuding with Senators like McCain and Corker.  Trump, who can never, under any circumstances, admit error, claimed that "sometimes it helps," and "it gets people to do what they're supposed to do."

Trump isn't big on facts, but... um, isn't McCain the guy who kept killing Trump's Obamacare repeal dreams?  And isn't Corker the guy who keeps saying he won't vote for a deficit-increasing tax cut?  Now, I'm very skeptical of the latter, but I attribute McCain's apostasy on healthcare as much to his Trump hatred as anything, so taunting the retiring Corker can't accomplish anything.

No, this is just Trump refusing to admit error.  And of course, there is similar history.  Remember that threat to Comey?  Remember when he intimated that the White House may have been recording the Trump/Comey conversations?  It was total fucking bullshit, like everything out of Trump's mouth.  Comey then gave his testimony, under oath, to Congress, calling Trump a fuckin' liar, under oath, and even that Trump-lapdog, Tom Cotton, didn't say shit about it.  Trump then vacillated between saying that Comey was lying, and then saying that his bullshit intimation of recordings forced Comey to tell the truth, meaning that his bluff "wasn't very stupid."  Nice phrase, there, Donny-boy.  Why did he say it "wasn't very stupid" to tell one of his typically stupid Trump-lies?  Because he is Trump, and he can never admit error.

Trump stupidly feuds with members of his own party.  Why?  He can't help it.  He's Trump.  Doing so is stupid, but he can't stop himself, nor can he admit error.  He has to say that everything he does is brilliant and intentional because he is the greatest at everything ever.

OK.  Now for your daily reminder that Nelson W. Polsby is still right.  I've been telling you people to read Consequences of Party Reform since long before my fellow political scientists took Trump seriously as a candidate.  Nelson argued that the post-1968 reforms to the Democratic Party's nominating rules allowed an outsider-- Jimmy Carter-- to get the nomination, but his poor relationship with the national Democratic Party hampered his ability to get anything done as President.

I started warning, long before any of my colleagues even bothered to take Trump seriously as a candidate, that Trump was a Carter in the making.  But worse, obviously.  Trump doesn't just have poor relations with his own party, he goes out of his way to antagonize Representatives and Senators of his own party.  This is at least part of the reason he can't get shit done.  And then Trump says it is helping him!  Why?  Because Trump is the dumbest motherfucker in the history of American politics.

The last time we had a president facing unified government unable to accomplish anything legislatively was with a president nominated as an outsider who had poor relationships with his party in Congress.

I've been warning about this...  This is what happens if you elect an idiotic, pussy-grabbing Jimmy Carter.  He did have lust in his heart, you know...

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

Michael Jerome Browne, "Wartime Blues," from his self-titled debut.  This youtube version is from a re-release.  Technically, Michael Jerome Browne is Canadian.  If that bothers you give the series, fuck off.  This is great, traditional blues.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The possible release of JFK documents and belief in conspiracy theories

Supposedly, Trump will be releasing documents on the Kennedy assassination.  I was never one of those people who got obsessed with the Kennedy assassination, nor any particular conspiracy theory.  I am, however, fascinated by conspiracy theories in general.  So much so that I teach about the topic in one of my courses.  I teach a course called "Interrogating Bullshit."  Yes, really.  Stop snickering.

Actually, snicker.  I think it's awesome, and my hero, George Carlin, would be proud.

The course is about faulty reasoning, poor applications of the scientific method, glitches in peer-review, and so forth.  Conspiracy theories fit right in there.  One of the articles I like to assign is an old piece by Ted Goertzel-- "Belief in Conspiracy Theories," from Political Psychology (December 1994, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp. 731-742).  I can't give you an un-gated link to it.  Sorry.

Quick synopsis:  most people believe in at least one conspiracy.  Even beyond JFK conspiracy theories, which 69% of respondents were open to accepting, people are prone to accepting some fascinating conspiracy theories, although the theories Goertzel tested were somewhat dated.  Education didn't even have the effect one might hope...

And let's be blunt about this.  Conspiracy theories have gotten worse since 1994.  Some conspiratorial ideas are partisan, like birtherism.  Fuck you, Trump!  Others are just weird and stupid, without being clearly partisan, like 9/11 conspiracy theories.  In the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, we asked respondents whether they thought the government "definitely knew," "probably knew," "probably didn't know," or, "definitely didn't know" in advance about 9/11.  10.5% of Strong Democrats and 10.4% of Strong Republicans (the opposing poles on a 7-point scale) said that the government "definitely knew" in advance about 9/11.  So, a tenth of each party's extremes were fuckwits about this in 2012.  Symmetry.  In contrast, 14.8% of Independents thought that the government "definitely knew" in advance.  As is often the case, it is the Independents who are most likely to be the dumbasses-- in this case, 14.8% likely to have their heads completely up their fucking asses.  Never believe the ridiculous myth that independents are the thoughtful, educated, informed citizenry, whereas the partisans are the dumbasses.  Other way around, and political scientists have known this for a long, long time.

Anyway, as I was saying, belief in conspiracy theories is quite widespread.  The basic problem with conspiracy theories, though, and the reason I don't tend to believe them, is that a conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest leak, I mean, link.  Sorry, Freudian slip there, but that's my point.  All it takes is one leak and the conspiracy comes apart.  The bigger the conspiracy, the harder it is to keep it under wraps.  "Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead."  You have probably heard some version of that before.  Tracing the origin of an aphorism is difficult, though, because of one of Polsby's Laws-- "famous sayings migrate into famous mouths."*  Maybe Ben Franklin said it first.  Maybe Twain, or... I don't know, and I don't care.  Some folklorist can worry about it.  It is Sunday morning, I haven't finished my coffee yet, and I'm on a rant again.  The point is that any conspiracy of significant size will have a blabbermouth.  Loose lips sink conspiratorial ships.  If it ain't sunk, it wasn't a conspiratorial ship.  How's that syllogism for ya'?

Example:  this ridiculous notion that there is a conspiracy among climatologists to fake the data on climate change.  Yeah, 'cuz that's how academia works.  We get bought off to go with the flow and say what everyone else is saying.  Have you read this fuckin' blog?  Granted, I'm a nobody, but the point is that nothing happens to me for dissenting.  Scratch that-- I was rewarded for dissenting.  I made my career by dissenting.  The whole fuckin' profession says "competitive elections are good and necessary for democracy."  I write a bunch of stuff saying no.  What happens?  A bunch of journals, and then Oxford University Press publish my stuff, Public Choice gives me the Gordon Tullock Award, and a top-tier national university gives me tenure.  Academia pushes back hard on dissent, just like every other human institution because humans are defective creatures.  But, ultimately, it rewards dissent because it must reward dissent.  That is how intellectual progress happens.  Science!

Conspiracies are fucking bullshit.  They don't work because someone's going to fucking blab.  All it takes is one fucking Henry Hill and unless you have some serious mafia shit going on to scare everyone, it won't work.  Totalitarianism has an uncertain future in places like North Korea, but here?  No fucking way can you keep every member of a conspiracy in line.  Someone will talk.  Whether it is an incompetent person who just can't keep a secret (hi, Mr. President, you fucking idiot!), or someone... "unmutual"... someone will talk.

Adam Weishaupt, my ass.

Anyway, wasn't I going to write about those JFK documents?  Yeah.  Here goes.  I'll read them, just to see.  Will it be a "holy shit" day when those documents come out?  Maybe.  I may revisit this post!  I've done that in the past.  What would be really interesting is if Trump has his people look through some documents to try to find something that makes the FBI or CIA look like they did something shifty in the Kennedy assassination, and selectively releases those to discredit them because he is involved in a conflict with them over Russia, but...

Fuck!  You see what I just did there?  That's conspiratorial!  And so is a shitload of the Russia stuff.  The difference between Russia conspiracy ideas and JFK conspiracy theories?  People have already talked on Russia.  We know, for example, that Don Jr. met with a fuckin' Russian spy during the campaign with the intent of getting dirt on Clinton as part of Putin's desire to help elect Trump.  That's not conspiracy theorizing.  That's established fact act this point.  Manafort is already facing an indictment, and Flynn is in deep shit.

Remember what I said about loose lips sinking conspiratorial ships?  Once you see some ships goin' down, things start looking a little different.

Nevertheless, I will read those documents with interest.  Of greater interest, though, will be the social reaction.  Everything is about the show, for Trump.  This is about spectacle.  And probably distraction.  Take a step back and focus on that.

Anyway, here's some bonus music.  While Amorica, by The Black Crowes, was one of the best rock albums of the '90s, I'll use youtube to put up a live track for, um... reasons.

* Nelson Polsby was my grad school advisor, and I have, on occasion, tried to figure out whether or not Nelson Polsby stole this one from anyone else.  As far as I can tell, it is a Nelson Polsby original, and outside of political science, Nelson ain't that famous anyway.  So, I will keep attributing it to Nelson.

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

I admit it.  Sarah Jarosz is great.  The version of "Tell Me True" from Live at the Troubadour is even better than the original album track, from Song Up In Her Head.  Anyway, without further ado...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The White House staff and Trump's lies

Well, I planned to write something this morning on the conflicting expectations people have regarding the nature of the Presidency and those phone calls, and a bunch of political science and blah, blah, blah, and then I perused my usual news cites, which include Roll Call, and I saw this.

Short version:  Trump lied, saying that he either always or nearly always contacted "gold star families," and that as soon as he told that lie, the White House staff then went into damage control mode to try to turn that lie into the truth.

I have written many times, oh so many times, about what a fuckin' liar Trump is, as have plenty of others, but it really is hard to grapple, not just with the scale of Trump's lies, but with the problem he presents to the political system, including journalism, political science and civil society itself.

I have made a lot of character references when describing Donald Trump.  Tony Clifton.  Mel Brooks' King Louis XVIFergus LaingPresident Camacho.  Today, Tommy Flanagan-- the "pathological liar" character created by John Lovitz, from back when I used to watch Saturday Night Live.

Tommy Flanagan is President, and his staff has been tasked with either looking for ways to defend his lies, or trying retroactively to turn them into truth.  And our tax dollars are paying them for this.

Let's contrast this with congressional staff.  Each Member of Congress, House or Senate, has a budget for staff, and their staff has to handle a variety of tasks, from legislative (although Congress doesn't do much legislating anymore) to constituency service.  That latter set is actually significant.  If you have a problem with the federal government, here's some free advice from your friendly, neighborhood political scientist (come on, people-- it's a reference!).  Contact your Representative.  He or she will kiss your ass.  Need a passport faster?  Call your Representative.  Problem with some federal benefit?  Call your Representative.  They love to do this shit.  Why?  It is easy for them, and they think it gets them votes.

How many votes?  That's hard to say, but books have been written about the extent to which the incumbency advantage is based on the fact that incumbents can do this kind of thing, and challengers can't.  See, for example, Bruce Cain, John Ferejohn and Morris Fiorina's The Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence.  (Full disclosure:  Bruce Cain was one of my grad school advisors).  The thing is, it isn't just Members of Congress handling constituency service.  They are devoting staff resources to this.  Sometimes rather a lot of those resources, actually.  And that's OK because those resources are actually serving the interests of the constituents.  Or, as I would argue, those resources are actually being put to use by the Member of Congress, who is an employee, for the benefit of the constituents, who are the employers.  No problems there.  One can argue about the proper allocation of resources and whether more should be spent on legislative activity, oversight, etc., but constituency service is a valid use of legislative resources given the employer-employee relationship between Members of Congress and their constituents.

That's not what's going on with the White House staff.  Their job, on a regular basis, is to help Trump cover up for the fact that he is Tommy Fucking Flanagan.  They are serving no public interest at all, drawing salaries from taxpayer-funded pots of money, and helping the most shameless liar in American political history attempt to get away with the dumbest lies this country has ever seen.  I am not attempting to emphasize the stupidity of Trump's lies here.  I am attempting to emphasize the contrast between the use of resources for White House staff, right now in Trump's White House, and traditional, constituency service-based use of staff in congressional staff offices.

Are there dishonest Members of Congress whose staff have to help them cover up their shit?  Sure, but nobody lies like Trump.  This is off the charts.  And we are paying the salaries of people whose job it is to cover up Trump's lies, or to go back and try to make them retroactively true.

I wonder where all those supposed deficit-hawks stand on this use of taxpayer dollars...

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

So many choices for today.  I just couldn't decide, so a twofer today.  Dickey Betts's title track from Highway Call.  He was on a break from The Allman Brothers in '74, and recorded a great country album.  Guests on the album included luminaries like Vassar Clements.  Vassar, alas, wasn't on this track, but I'm doing my theme schtick.  Then, Steve Earle's "Telephone Road," from El Corazon.  Nothing needs to be said about Steve Earle.  Steve Earle and Dickey Betts today.  You're welcome.

Friday, October 20, 2017

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

I lean too heavily on the old guys in the jazz series, but today, I get to use Takuya Kuroda.  "Call," from Rising Son.  Great modern soul-jazz.

Don't get distracted. Important things are happening in Congress.

It is easy to get distracted.  I may write something this weekend on this stupid shit with the phone calls to veterans' families, or, or, or...

Regardless, important things are happening in Congress.  Remember how I've been saying that the GOP would have an easier time on taxes than on healthcare?  They've been having a little difficulty getting the budget resolution together, but the Senate just passed the House's budget.  Yes, this is technical, but it really matters.

Reminder: the Republicans are doing everything through "budget resolution" because a budget resolution bill can't be filibustered in the Senate.  Debate times are automatically set by the rules of budget resolution, so the minority party can't just refuse to yield the floor and vote against cloture because no cloture motion is necessary to end debate.  Debate just cuts off automatically.

Sorry.  Technical stuff.  Presumably, if you are reading a political scientist's blog, you are here for some technical shit on occasion.  But hey, jazz goes up tonight!

One of the necessary steps in this is the passage of that budget resolution.  The GOP has been having some difficulty with the resolution, and that could have spelled trouble for their tax goals.  I never bought into the idea that they'd fail on the budget resolution, though.  On the other hand, if they were completely unified, this would have been easier.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, I expect the tax issue to play out differently from healthcare, but the devil is in the details.  Now that the GOP has a procedural map for what to do, it is all about ironing out those details and sorting out those devils.  With that in mind, here are a few reminders before I get into what's next:

1)  Tax cuts versus tax reform.  A tax reform bill means lowering rates while eliminating deductions in order to keep revenues constant.  It is, conceptually (generally speaking), revenue-neutral.  The degree to which you can lower rates depends on the degree to which you eliminate deductions.  Deductions are popular, nobody in the GOP congressional delegation really wants to eliminate any major deductions, so this won't happen.  They just want to cut taxes.

2)  Under reconciliation rules, that means limiting the tax cuts to a) expire in 10 years because you can't increase the deficit for more than 10 years under the Byrd rule, and b) the reconciliation instructions put a cap on the degree of deficit expansion permitted.

3)  That puts the GOP at war with itself on whose taxes get cut.  Income taxes, corporate taxes, capital gains taxes, inheritance taxes...  We have a lot of different taxes, and different Members of Congress have different priorities.  Basically every Republican in Congress hates taxes, and regardless of what they say about the deficit, stick a deficit-increasing tax cut in front of them, and until they demonstrate otherwise, my default assumption is that any GOP legislator who claims to oppose deficit-increasing tax cuts is a fuckin' liar.  Yeah, John McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts long ago, but he was just pissed at Bush over the 2000 election.  Then again, he hates Trump, and he seems to be checking items off his bucket list.

Regardless, the budget passed the Senate, and it did so because Republicans support the concept of tax cuts.  In the case of healthcare, the problem was the "replace" part of "repeal-and-replace."  It never meant a fuckin' thing.  It was a word added to "repeal" once the protections for pre-existing conditions, etc. went into effect because a simple repeal stopped being politically viable, but the party never had any clue what even the rough outlines of a replacement plan might be.  And they didn't even really start until after Trump's surprise victory, and even then, they skipped anything like a normal legislative process with hearings, mark-up, etc.  That was the problem.  They never had even a common concept for "replace."  That's not true with taxes.  They support tax cuts, regardless of what the people who claim to be deficit hawks say.  They may simply have different priorities on which taxes get cut.

So, given that the resolution passed the Senate, in order for the Republicans to fail on taxes, at least two people have to flip.  The resolution passed 51-49.  With Pence, they can lose two one of those 51 and still pass something.  Failure means two of those 51 have to decide, "yeah, I like the idea of cutting taxes, but this specific set of tax cuts isn't the set of droids I'm looking for."  So, unless someone jedi mind-tricks them, the only way the GOP fails is if they screw up the process of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of a constrained set of tax cuts.

They could!  They have $1.5 trillion to spread around, and not everyone has the same priorities.  At the end of the process, though, there will be a bill, and anyone who votes no will be voting to keep taxes at their current rates, versus a package of tax cuts worth $1.5 trillion.

Everybody kind of has a thing.  John Coltrane played the saxophone.  Trump lies.  Republicans?  They cut taxes.  It's what they do.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trump, Ryan and that maybe-bipartisan deal on cost-sharing subsidies

Hey, watch me keep writing about substance rather than all of the bullshit going on!  I'm displaying willpower

Yesterday, I wrote about the possible Alexander-Murray deal to restore cost-sharing subsidies to the health insurance markets.  I wrote about several possible obstacles, including Trump and the House of Representatives.  Since then, Trump has backtracked on his initial support, and Ryan has been less than enthusiastic about the deal.  How do we interpret these?

With Trump, there is no informational content in anything he says.  Remember, Trump is not just a pathological liar.  He is also a brainless bullshitter and extemporizing bloviator.  Translation:  he talks out of his ass without thinking because he doesn't know shit from shinola.  What did it mean when he gave initial tentative support for Alexander-Murray?  Nothing.  What did it mean yesterday when he backed away from Alexander-Murray?  Nothing.  Trump's words mean nothing because they come from Donald J. Trump.  This is the same guy who spent years telling everyone that Obama was born in Kenya, and that he had investigators in Hawaii who were finding incredible things that were just about to be released.  This is the guy who ran that "Trump University" scam, and so forth.  What do Trump's words mean?  Nothing.  What would Trump do, if presented with a bill based on the Alexander-Murray concept?  Who the fuck knows?  He's Trump.  I doubt he knows.  Tell him he's repealing Obamacare, and he'll sign it.  It's not like he'd read it.

Paul Ryan, on the other hand, is a strategic actor.  As I wrote yesterday, he is in a strategic bind.  He is almost certainly unthrilled with Trump's actions, and if I had to bet, I'd bet he would prefer to put Alexander-Murray, once formulated into a bill, up for a vote.  I'd also bet that, for position-taking purposes (see Mayhew, David), he would prefer to vote against the bill, but simply allowing the bill to come up for a vote as Speaker would tell you his real preferences.  If he really opposed a bill, he'd never let it get a vote.  Ryan wants those subsidies back to ensure stabilization of the markets because destabilized markets hurt the party in power.  That would be the GOP.  The problem is, as I said yesterday, Ryan is worried about his right-flank.  Those would be the "knuckleheads," in John Boehner's words, who sacked one of the best Speakers in modern history.  I'm still speaking of John Boehner.  So, where does that leave Ryan?  Here.  Ryan is tepid at best in his reaction to Alexander-Murray, and mostly just saying REPEAL REPEAL REPEAL!  Why?  Either Ryan is all in on sabotage, or he feels constrained by those who want sabotage.

The thing is that Ryan has a record.  Ryan was never one of the bomb-throwers.  While he is a far-right conservative, he has always been more pragmatic than the knuckleheads.  He was never a "let's breach the debt ceiling and see what happens" kind of guy.  He was never a "let's shut down the government for the fucking hell of it" kind of guy.  Ryan is way conservative, but he is more of a pragmatist than a bomb-thrower (the term going back to the Gingrich era).  Blocking Alexander-Murray is Gingrich-style bomb-throwing.  Trump is a direct political descendent of Newt Gingrich and the bomb-throwers.  That's why Trump and Gingrich got along so well.  (Well, that and the combination of stupidity, arrogance and womanizing...)  Given Ryan's general preference for pragmatism, I see Ryan's response here as that of a man constrained by the fear of getting Boehnered rather than a belief that Alexander-Murray should be blocked in favor of continued, futile work on that "repeal-and-replace" nonsense.

What happens now?  No clue.  Ryan didn't actually say, I ain't passin' that shit, and Trump is just... Trump.  Trying to predict what happens with this kind of thing right now is a mug's game.  There are lawsuits, terror in the healthcare markets... This is all just chaotic and crazy.  Yup, just another Thursday in the Trump era.

But hey, it isn't like anyone in the White House is using private email accounts, right?

Oh, wait...

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A bipartisan deal to block Trump on Obamacare (?)

This... may be interesting.  Patty Murray and Lamar Alexander have supposedly formulated the outlines of a deal for a piece of legislation to counteract Trump's executive order cutting off the cost-sharing subsidies for the individual healthcare markets.

I went through the "what ifs" a few days ago on healthcare if Trump's executive order stands, and as far as policy consequences go, they range from dire to just unpleasant.  The political wrangling was similarly uncertain.  I put a low likelihood on a simple fix to the loophole that let Trump block the cost-sharing subsidies, and added another category for crazy-shit-happens.  The rekindling of the Alexander-Murray talks is somewhere between the two.

First, recall that Alexander and Murray were in talks for bipartisan fixes to Obamacare before the whole Graham-Cassidy mess, and Alexander, shall we say, "shut that whole thing down," because there was no way Graham-Cassidy could pass if it looked like Obamacare was going to have its holes patched.  So, he stuck a knife in Patty Murray's back, ended bipartisan negotiations, and gave his full support to Graham-Cassidy.

He hasn't actually restarted that process, and somehow, Murray isn't spurning him entirely.  (Think about that.  Would you?)  Anyway, roughly, the deal is as follows.  Cost-sharing subsidies are fully funded in the law (temporarily, at least), but along with that are a few goodies for the GOP, like reduction in the requirements for some state waivers.

So, there are two interpretations we can take from this, depending on how much the GOP goodies wind up being worth, presuming the deal passes (more on that, after the fold).

1)  Hostage-taking, and in fact, hostage shooting works again.  Back in 2011, the GOP held the debt ceiling hostage (in Mitch McConnell's words, the debt ceiling was "a hostage that's worth ransoming"), and Obama didn't understand what he was doing, or who his opposition was.  So, he gave the hostage-takers a shitload of money, in the form of spending cuts on programs about which he cared, just to not crash the economy of every country on the planet.  It took a few cycles to break the GOP of the hostage-taking habit (although the impulse is still there).  Really, it took the 2013 shutdown, but they've been burned by it, and they stopped doing it (mostly).  Trump just shot the fuckin' hostage.  Patty Murray is now offering the GOP policy concessions to stop shooting hostages, undoing the hard work that the Democrats did fixing Obama's 2011 fuck-up.

2)  Maybe the concessions to the GOP are just minor concessions to help the fix go down easier.  As I wrote the other day, most in the GOP don't want Trump doing this kind of stupid shit because they know the risks to the health insurance market, and they know that the GOP will take the blame.  So, patch the hole.  But, getting a deal through requires getting Republican buy-in, and that requires throwing a bone to the conservatives, and in particular, the Freedom Caucus so that they don't feel like they got screwed even though the only thing they know how to do is to complain about how they are getting screwed.  So, find something that looks like a win for them, but isn't all that big in real terms, add that to the deal along with the important thing, which is blocking Trump from cutting off the cost-sharing subsidies, and Bob's your uncle.

The difference between 1 and 2 is the importance of Murray's concessions.  This... is where I'm really not your best source because this is about the importance of one policy versus another.  I'm not really a policy guy.  The aspect of the deal that I find most interesting, from the Democrats' perspective, is the increased eligibility for catastrophic plans.  I'm going to do some reading on those, and from a strategic perspective, I think the Democrats should too because that could be a trojan horse.  Then again, as I said, I'm not a policy guy.  Go elsewhere for that shit.

Now, can this pass?  In the Senate, if Mitch McConnell lets a vote happen, then yes.  Murray's support means the Dems will follow her.  Alexander can bring in Collins and Murkowski easily.  The Democratic caucus plus Alexander, Collins and Murkowski...  Getting to 51 in the Senate shouldn't be a problem.  Ugly, yes, but it should happen if McConnell permits it.  Of course, there is the perverse possibility of a majority party filibuster, but I'm skeptical.  We'll see.

The House...  Again, I find it difficult to believe that the Democrats will turn on Murray's negotiated deal.  We have seen them follow her before.  When she was Chair of the Senate Budget Committee, post-2011, she worked out a framework for future spending to prevent stuff like that showdown with the Chair of the House Budget Committee at the time.  I think is name was Paul somethingorother.  He was an Ayn Rand-worshipping dudebro.  Whatever happened to that guy?  Regardless, House Democrats went along with Murray.  They tend to do that.

Anyway, that leaves, as usual, the mess of the House GOP caucus.  Even if there are enough Republicans willing to support the Alexander-Murray plan, the Freedom Caucus can threaten to overthrow Ryan if he brings it up for a vote, and Alexander-Murray is dead.  Will that happen?  It depends on how they see the concessions, and I have no clue about that.  Maybe Trump will say he loves the deal, and they go along.  He has already signaled general support, so who knows?

This is all batshit crazy.  Welcome to modern American politics.