Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bonus jazz for a Tuesday

For you, Donny.  John Scofield's cover of the Ray Charles classic, "What'd I Say."  That was the title cut from an entire album of Ray Charles covers, in Scofield's style!


Trump, Putin and the nature of power

Yesterday was surreal, but precisely what anyone with a clear sense of the last two years would have expected.  Trump was obsequious and submissive, which he... never is, except when dealing with Vladimir Putin.  Whether that is because he hero-worships Putin, or because Putin really does have blackmail material on him, we may never know for certain, as uncomfortable as that may be.  I'll restate here my continued assessment, which has not changed for quite some time.  Putin does have blackmail material of some kind on Trump (which clearly isn't that difficult to acquire, as has been demonstrated by the Stormy Daniels case), but hasn't needed to use it because Trump is so easy to manipulate by exploiting his natural fascination with totalitarian dictators, combined with his need for praise.  Don't pull the trigger on that blackmail until you have to because once you do, you turn the friend into an enemy.

Regardless of how Putin manages to get Trump to behave so submissively, he does, and this brings me to the subject of power.  Nominally, I study this.  I am a professor of political science.  Screw the capitalizations because, whatever.  To the degree that politics can be constrained in intellectual terms, it would be the study of power.  Who has it, how do they get it, how do they exercise it, etc.?  Harold Laswell simply defined politics as:  who gets what, when and how?  That's more concise, and distributional, but fundamentally, politics are about power.

So, what's power?  We now play the definitional game of infinite regress.  The ability to control or influence outcomes, right?  So, how much influence does Vladimir Putin have over American politics, and what does that say about "power?"  We are now into some fuzzy questions about politics that aren't my normal territory, but the fuzziness of the question is directly associated with the ambiguity of the relationship between Trump and Putin.

In normal times, we would say that the President of the United States is clearly the most "powerful" person in the world.  His control over military resources, capacity to make appointments and so forth, give him more direct power to influence outcomes than any other single person on the planet.  Normally.  Throughout history, the relative power of Congress and the Presidency have gone back and forth (see, for example, James Sundquist, although I can't believe I find myself referencing him), although as a single person, the institutional powers of the Presidency give the holder of that office powers, particularly now (go away, Sundquist!), that are going to be difficult to rival.  Who, though, can influence a president?  Advisors, in normal times.  We find ourselves, though, facing at least the possibility of "kompromat," or perhaps just a President whose hero-worship of an autocratic dictator leaves his judgment so blinkered that he cannot make sound decisions (not that he could otherwise anyway).

What, then, could Putin do?  That's the question, isn't it?  I have already stated my assessment that NATO is no longer a truly functioning treaty organization because Trump would never back NATO over Putin.  That gives Putin the capacity to act against NATO, but will he?  That's a separate question, and if he doesn't act against NATO, does that... power (?) mean anything?  What else can Putin do?  We have already seen Trump hand national security secrets over to Russia, getting nothing in return, and I would put a high likelihood on more of that, which is a hell of a lot of power.  In many ways, though, Trump is constrained, by Congress, by the rest of the world...  Putin can't tell Trump to bomb the shit out of Chechnya to make that problem go away for him.  He can't tell Trump to hand over a $100 billion for nothin'.  Russia is not a wealthy country.  It has nukes, but we aren't the only ones with nukes to check their nuclear capacity.  It has a large army, but empire-building in an economically interconnected world has its own risks and problems, which leaves the basic question of what Putin could do, and what he could get from Trump.

This is a difficult question.  Putin has power over Trump.  Even if all you knew was what you saw yesterday, combined with Trump's penchant for playing social dominance games, you would know that Putin has the upper hand on Trump.  What actual power does that give him?  Thinking this through, I'm not sure.  We have already seen Trump hand over national security secrets.  In the open.  What else?  I don't know, but there's that.  Such is the ambiguous nature of power.

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

I know, I have used this before (recently), but it's just too perfect.  When Trump meets with his KGB handler in a Scandinavian country, I just have to play "Sovjet," by Swedish bassist, Jonas Hellborg, from e.


Monday, July 16, 2018

Donald Trump, foreign policy and Team America: World Police (more NSFW than my typical posts)

OK, so... warning.  I have what I sometimes call a "Carlin-mouth."  My posts are often "not-safe-for-work."  This post will address Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police.  It will involve Carlin-speak.  Perhaps more than my usual posts.  Fair warning.

The plot of Team America: World Police is that a government agency recruits an actor (Gary) to be a secret agent/action hero/whatever to stop Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un's father) from doing evil.  That's really all you need to know.  It was an excuse to have marionette puppets say and do crude things because it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Early in the movie, Gary meets a drunk at a bar, who gives him a speech.  This speech:



The world can be divided into "dicks," "pussies," and "assholes."  The key to the movie is a scene in which Gary takes this speech and uses it to convince the UN to let Team America do its thing.



So, there it is.  Only we can stop Kim Jong Il, despite our recklessness and arrogance.  And... dickishness.

Is Donald Trump a "dick" or an "asshole?"  How does one distinguish?  This is not actually an issue that Team America addresses, but it is important.  Gary's basic tripartite model distinguishes between "dicks" and "assholes" as follows:  "assholes shit all over everything," but "dicks," while arrogant and reckless, "fuck assholes."  So, there will eventually be something good done by the "dick"-- stopping an "asshole."

Donald Trump practically blew up a NATO meeting, and just called the EU our "foes."  In contrast, he cozies up to Putin, and Kim Jong Un, the son of the very "asshole" from Team America itself.  Which "assholes," specifically, does Trump confront?  He launched a few missiles at Assad, but that was it.  He is levying tariffs on allies like Canada, Europe...  This could be classified as "dick" behavior rather than "asshole" behavior, but to get the former classification, he would have to "fuck" an "asshole."  He acts like Putin, and now Kim Jong Un, are his best buddies.

Donald Trump, by the Team America model, is just an "asshole."

I warned you-- NSFW.

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

Long Tall Deb, "What Kind of Man."  The studio version is on Diamonds on the Desert Floor.


Sunday, July 15, 2018

The latest Mueller indictments and the legal definition of "coordination" (yet another c-word...)

One of the more fascinating details in Mueller's latest round of indictments was that when Trump told the Russians to look for Clinton's deleted emails, within hours, they made a hacking attempt to do just that.  Is that "collusion?"  Well, as everyone but Trump knows, there is no legal definition of "collusion," and the Trump people are simply willfully obtuse on that point.  You know what does have a legal definition in campaign finance terms?  "Coordination."

Here goes...

Coordination is what happens when an ostensibly independent group makes expenditure decisions, or ad content decisions in direct consultation with the candidate that it is trying to help.  That's sort of a lay-person definition.  So, superPACs aren't allowed to coordinate with candidates.  They can run ads that are clearly on a candidate's behalf, but they can't have the head of the superPAC sit down with the candidate, map out where the ads will run, when, how the ads will look, scripts, etc.  That would be coordination.  Legal problems ensue.  Here's the thing, though.  Nobody ever gets caught for coordination in the campaign finance system.  Why not?  It's too easy to accomplish the same goal without actually crossing the legal threshold.  Basically, superPACs and other independent groups all play a game of "I'm not touching you!" with the FEC.

The kind of example I always give when I teach this stuff is the basic signaling process that occurs any time a candidate talks.  Hey everyone!  Pay attention to X about my opponent!  Did you hear about that scandal?!  If a superPAC then runs ads about X, is that coordination?  Not legally.  So, where's the line?

Uh...

Somewhere between that and the working dinner where the candidate and the chair of the superPAC map out the ad campaign in full together.  And that leaves plenty of room for smart people to send signals that are clear enough for the superPAC chairs to understand, but vague enough to avoid any legal problems because the laws are written in such a way that you have to be really stupid to go far enough to get convicted.

Any time I use the word, "stupid," do you free-associate the name, "Trump?"  Good.  Well done.

How stupid is Trump?  That sounds like the set-up for an old comedy routine, until you remember that he can launch nuclear weapons.  HAHA!  ha... uhh...

Trump is very stupid, but he is also full of bluster and bullshit.  Could his entreaty to the Russians be taken as bluster and bullshit, given his propensity for those things?  As Trump?  Yup.  That cannot be ruled out entirely, and between that and the high bar for showing coordination in campaigns, how much should you read into this?  Not much.

Not much, but not nothin'.  Here's the what-if.  What if the Russians had found the deleted emails, and what if they had something other than just details on Chelsea's wedding, and other such irrelevancies?  What if they handed those emails to Trump, or to WikiLeaks, via Trump's good buddy, Roger Stone?  Trump would have been pretty happy about that.  And he's already pretty enamored of Putin.  It would have been one more way for the Russians to give him something.

Anyway, keep this in mind when thinking about the latest indictments.  "Coordination" in campaigns is kind of a joke because the legal threshold for demonstrating it is so high.  Of course, I essentially advocate no limits on donations, with full disclosure of all sources.  If you think there is influence, you know exactly what you are getting.  Trump basically had a Russian flag on him while campaigning for office, so we shouldn't be surprised that one of his first acts as President was handing national security secrets to the Russians just because he could.  No, I don't forget these things, and neither should you.

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

Tim O'Brien, "Crooked Road," from Chameleon.  You can never get enough Tim O'Brien.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Thai cave rescue, empathetic hedonism, and some of my... controversial posts

There is an interesting interview with Tim Recuber over at Vox about the recent rescue of the kids from the Thai cave, and some of the associated issues of coverage, the nature of empathy, and I have a few observations.

The gist is that Recuber writes about the concept of "empathetic hedonism," which is the expression of empathy, not because it does good for its own sake, but to make one feel good about one's self.  See?  I'm empathetic!  That means I'm better than you are because I have so much empathy!  It's sort of a purity game.  Express empathy rather than doing good.  One of the issues raised in the article is the observation that, while 12 kids were trapped in a cave, there are far more living in war zones around the world, completely ignored because we don't have the dramatic event of the scary cave.  Consequently, people wind up ignoring the greater dangers and disregarding far more lives for the sake of empathetic hedonism.  Do you want to do some good and save lives?  If so, the Thai cave rescue wasn't the place to focus your attention, by the numbers.  On the other hand, it was a great place to focus your attention if what you wanted was some good, old-fashioned moral posturing.

Does this sound familiar?  It might.  It is very similar to how I write about liberals' reactions to "mass shootings," with a twist, and some insights I hadn't considered before.  Recuber even mentions... Parkland.

Regular readers can probably guess what I was thinking as daily news coverage of the Thai cave story played out.  10,000 people were dying every day due to waterborne pathogens around the world, and everyone was focused on 12 kids in a cave.  Just call me Mr. Pump.  The 10,000 a day were being ignored because it was harder for the media to create a dramatic narrative about it, with a story that was too old to be a story anymore, so nobody cared, and 10,000 per day is so many that nobody can bring themselves to see that as anything more that a Stalinist statistic.  I was disgusted, and continue to be disgusted by the world's capacity to pretend that they care about saving lives while ignoring mass tragedy.  You want to ignore people dying?  Then don't posture to me about how much you care about whatever deaths or lives-at-stake are the story of the day.  I hate hypocrisy.

Resnick, who interviewed Recuber for Vox, brought up children living in war zones, as his point of comparison.  Why focus on 12 kids in a cave when there are far more living in war zones?  That is a legitimate comparison, and makes fundamentally the same point.  The world misses mass tragedy in favor of small but dramatic stories, and according to Recuber, it is so that people can pat themselves on the back for feeling empathy rather than actually doing anything.  However, I won't even go where Resnick goes because I'm not confident I know how to save the kids in war zones.  Intervene militarily?  Sometimes that's the right answer, sometimes not.  I'm not confident I know how to tell the difference.  This is one of the things that scholarship teaches you, or should teach you-- being constantly aware of the limits of your own expertise.  Some problems are easy (don't start a trade war with Canada, you fucking mercantilist idiot!).  Many are difficult.  War and political instability?  That's about as difficult as it gets, and until you get to extremes (fighting Hitler was the right thing to do, for example), I get uncomfortable about my ability to make the right call.  So, dealing with kids in war zones?  This gets into a whole mess of ideology that a) isn't an easy thing for me, and b) complicates our politics and morality to the point that I can't just say, "do X if you want to be moral."  Resnick wants to make that comparison?  OK, but that's just not where I'll go.

That's why I always go back to my observations about waterborne pathogens, malaria, and other clearly addressable issues.  Death tolls are high, we know exactly how to prevent them, the moral tradeoffs are far less complicated than with war, we don't have the same practical issues to consider that we do when we decide to intervene militarily, trying to consider both the people we kill directly, and the unknown political consequences of that intervention... It's just that simple.  Do you want to save lives or not?  If you do, water treatment, mosquito netting, etc.  If you care, do it.

Recuber's basic argument is that the empathy people express in the case of some dramatic, tragic event is hedonistic rather than directed by an active, utilitarian desire to do good.  Hence, it is kind of misdirected.

Yes, this should sound very familiar because this is so similar to how I write about "mass shootings."  Just call me Mr. Pump.

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

Donny?  Where are you?!

Robert Earl Keen, "I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight," from Picnic


Friday, July 13, 2018

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

Sun Ra, “To A Friend,” from Solo Piano, Volume 1


Peter Strzok and the preferences of FBI agents

I have covered the Inspector General's statements on Peter Strzok in a previous post, so I won't bother to rehash them here.  Yesterday's hearings fall into the category of "what Congress does when it isn't doing anything important."  Subcategory:  grandstanding.

I'll make a relatively simple observation, though.  The Republican position, predictably, is that Strzok didn't like Trump, and Strzok was initially a part of Mueller's investigation, therefore the entire Mueller investigation is tainted, and Trump must be declared completely innocent.

Shall we apply this to Clinton, Bill or Hillary?  Or any Democratic politician?  I could go back to Ken Starr, but I'm really more interested in Comey's clear distaste for Hillary Clinton, as evidenced by his public excoriation of her when he announced that he wouldn't prosecute her.  Recall that this was part of the original, and clearly bullshit justification for firing him in the Rosenstein memo-- his overly harsh treatment of Clinton, which was clearly personal.  One agent who chose to remain anonymous called the FBI "Trumpland" during the 2016 election, amid leak after leak from the FBI aimed at hurting Clinton.  FBI agents, including Strzok, hated Clinton.  (Of course, the GOP doesn't want to talk about what Strzok thought of Clinton...)

Does this invalidate any FBI investigation of Clinton and vindicate her?  To apply congressional Republicans' current argument, it would have to.  If Strzok's hatred of Trump vindicates Trump, then the FBI's hatred of Clinton must vindicate Clinton.

Of course, the GOP is calling for more and more investigations of the woman who hasn't held any formal office since 2012.  Why?  Because this isn't about facts or reason.

There is a trope in police procedurals where a corrupt cop has all of the people he ever arrested set free as soon as internal affairs finds out that he took a bribe (which isn't even remotely close to what Strzok did).  Investigations are supposed to be decided on the facts.  The facts, for the GOP, are pretty bad.  Lots of contacts with Russia, lots of attempts at coordination, lots of lying, Trump firing the FBI Director to shut down an investigation, and I won't even bother trying to summarize everything because there is simply too much.  If this is decided on the facts, the GOP loses.  However, this will instead be decided by... the GOP.  Mueller can indict anyone lower than the president for federal crimes, and Trump can pardon them.  As for Trump himself, as I keep telling you, he'll never submit to an interview, and no matter what, congressional Republicans will never impeach.  Their excuse will be...  Strzok!  Deep state!  Aliens did it!  HILLARY'S EMAILS!!!!!!!  Is it bullshit?  Yes, but that doesn't matter to them.  Fox will lap it up like the lapdogs they are (I love English!), Republican voters are blind here, independent voters will be overwhelmed by inconsistent messages from Democrats and Republicans, and chalk everything up to partisan bickering.  Trump gets away with it.  If the economy chugs along, he wins in 2020.

In other words, this is a bad faith argument, and obviously so when you consider the attitudes at the FBI towards Hillary Clinton, combined with Republicans' never-ending obsession with her.

Eventually, Hillary Clinton will die.  She's not a vampire.  (Sorry, Jason Isbell.)  Anyone want to bet that the GOP will start a "Hillary faked her own death to escape the email investigation!" conspiracy theory?  I'm not joking about this.  I wish I were.  Would it be less crazy than pizzagate?  Would it be less crazy than any of the shit that Donald Trump says on a daily basis?  Dude listens to Alex Jones.

Yeah, as far as the GOP is concerned, Peter Strzok's dislike of Trump means Trump must be innocent, but let's still go after Hillary and ignore what happens if we apply that reasoning to the Rosenstein memo.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

NATO: Schrodinger's Treaty Organization?

Is NATO actually alive right now?  Is it functioning?  We aren't actually observing it, so we cannot know.  It's existence is a wave function that has yet to collapse.  What would cause it to collapse?  Somebody attacking a NATO country.

If ISIS, al Qaeda or whoever, were to attack Norway, and we could track that back to some faction hiding out in what Trump calls a "shithole" country in Africa, the US would commit its forces to the defense of Norway.  Why?  Hmmm.... Norwegians versus "shithole" countries... our David Duke-endorsed President would love to fight that [race] war.

On the other hand, what if Vladimir Putin were to start encroaching on, say, Estonia?  I didn't pull this out of nowhere.  The US Ambassador to Estonia just resigned because Trump is being such an asshole, and the question of NATO defense of the Baltics against Russian encroachment became an issue in 2016 because Trump said that the US might not defend them if they didn't pay up.  Considering that Trump is upping his financial demands, this is a very real question.

Right now, be honest.  If Putin started pushing on the Estonian border, NATO would be obligated to defend Estonia.  Do you seriously think Trump would follow through?  No.  Of course not.  He'd bash Estonia, gush about how awesomely "tough" Putin is, yell about how horrible Europe is, and say that everyone needs to pay up, like a fuckin' mob boss running a protection racket.  Anyone who says that Trump would ever stand up to Putin is either lying or a fool.

Trump just went over to a NATO meeting, started stupid fights with our "allies," and then talked about how great it was going to be when he met with Putin.  The guy who invaded Crimea.  A treaty that is only operative as long as it is never invoked isn't a real treaty.  It is Schrodinger's treaty.  That's what happens when the American people elect Vladimir Putin's stooge as their President.  Donald Trump will never confront Putin directly.  Therefore, nobody in NATO has any protection from Putin, regardless of what the text of the treaty says, for as long as Trump is President.

Right now, NATO's goal is to ride out Trump.  Trump demonstrates a core problem, and it is a core problem that every theorist going back to Machiavelli understood.  It is dangerous to depend on alliances with anyone more powerful than you are.  Europe has depended on an alliance with the US.  From the US's perspective, that alliance has been based on an ideological commitment to western-style liberal democracy, and that is why we have shouldered the financial burden.  What do we get out of it?  A world order that is to our ideological liking.  Trump, though, doesn't believe in that.  He believes in autocracy.  He hates democracy, doesn't get along with any government built on democracy, and worships totalitarian dictators.  So, he's fine shredding a treaty and treaty organization that exists to protect western-style liberal democracy.  If the result is more totalitarianism in the world, that's fine with him as long as he's one of the totalitarian rulers.  I really wish that I weren't in the position of writing this.  This is the kind of stuff that is supposed to be on a weirdo, conspiratorial FaceBook page for someone in a tin-foil hat, not a political science professor's blog.  Unfortunately, this is just our world.  The President aspires to be a totalitarian ruler.  He isn't one, but that is his goal.

NATO is just hoping that, in 2.5 years, that won't be our world anymore.  They are hoping that America comes to its senses, kicks Trump out of office, and elects someone with a brain, a conscience, and no aspirations of being emperor.  The problem is that all it takes is one chip to demonstrate that the US can't be trusted, and NATO becomes... nothing.  All you have to do is look inside that box.  Just one quick peak, and the wave form collapses.

Will Putin do anything?  He isn't going to march into Eastern Europe with an army of furry hats and scary, Soviet-style music playing in the background.  He doesn't have the money, and he isn't reckless.  He also doesn't have to do it in order to collapse the wave form.  All he has to do is push far enough that NATO would be required to intervene, show that Trump won't, and that sequence would be enough to demonstrate that NATO doesn't work.  That would be enough.  Dayenu.  If, at any point in the next two years, Putin pushes some troops past the Estonian border far enough that NATO would be required to respond, and Trump refuses, NATO is dead because it demonstrates that the largest partner cannot be trusted.  Putin will have won, with very little troop commitment.

Right now, because we are not observing this sequence, we are pretending that NATO fully operates.  There is some probability of NATO being in effect, for any given eventuality, but that would depend on what that eventuality is.  If it gives Trump the kind of race war dynamic that he loves, David Duke-endorsed racist that he is, then we see NATO operating, and it continues to exist.  However, NATO is teetering on the edge, and Putin doesn't have to do much to destroy it because the current US President is a lying, backstabbing sack of shit who won't obey our treaty obligations the way NATO did after 9/11, who is probably in Putin's back pocket, who doesn't value western-style liberal democracy, and who, fundamentally, demonstrates his own point.  The US cannot be trusted.  Under Trump, it cannot, but as long as the trustworthiness of the country depends on the president, the country is not trustworthy.

NATO, though?  Raise your virtual hand if you want to look inside that box.

Also, S'TO!

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Democrats have no cards to play against Kavanaugh

As battle lines are drawn for Kavanaugh's confirmation, it is worth remembering that Democrats have no cards to play, and the battle is over.  It's a done deal.  This isn't a fight.  Yes, there will be meetings and hearings, and all of that, but as I keep writing, that's all theater.  Here's how the theater goes.

Basically, Kavanaugh will commit plagiarism, which is ironic since Trump's last appointee was an actual, literal plagiarist.  With Kavanaugh, I'm only writing metaphorically.  Still, every nominee follows a script, particularly on the Republican side.  Platitudes about ruling based on the Constitution rather than personal beliefs, because that latter thing is what everyone who disagrees with me does.  More platitudes about respect for precedent, in order to convince that dupe, Susan Collins, that he looooooves Roe v. Wade, combined with some other generic and vague statements about the need to overturn rulings when they are truly horrendous, frequently referencing Plessy, in order to hint to right that, no really, he'll overturn Roe.  Basically, do that while citing lots and lots of precedent in a sufficiently bland manner, and it's a done deal.  He could literally say the exact same things that Plagiarist-Gorsuch said, and nobody would notice.  And, since Plagiarist-Gorsuch is a plagiarist anyway, there would be some symmetry to it.

The Senate is 51-49, but McCain won't be there unless necessary.  However, if McConnell needs to wheel his dying corpus/corpse into the Senate chamber... That.  Will.  Happen.  Without him there, the Senate is 50-49.  McConnell can lose every Democrat, as long as he keeps every Republican.  If one flips, though, that would be 50 no votes to 49 yes votes, and Kavanaugh sinks.  However, Collins and Murkowski are going to vote yes, like good, little Republicans, just like I've been telling you.  If you have been paying attention to recent rhetoric, you understand this.  Even if Collins changed her mind, McConnell brings in McCain's hospital bed, IV-drip and all.  And McConnell can probably get at least one Democrat.  Right now, betting is 3-1 that Manchin votes yes, with similar odds for Donnelly and Heitkamp.

Beating Kavanaugh means pulling back Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp, then getting Collins and Murkowski because if it comes down to that, McCain's bare-ass hospital gown makes an appearance on the Senate floor.  I'm pretty sure it violates their rules for attire, but who's gonna arrest him?

It's over.  What do the Democrats do now?  They plan for 2018.  And 2020, but really, that hinges on things like the economy anyway.  Democrats have no cards to play.  Well, there's court-packing, the next time they get unified control, and yes, I've been on this for a long time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Originalism is bullshit (and so is every other philosophy of constitutional interpretation)

He picked Kavanaugh.  Shocker.  And so begins yet another round of "my philosophy can kick your philosophy's ass," with special emphasis on, "yay originalism!"  The Senate will confirm Kavanaugh, after going through its usual Kabuki theater of bullshit questions that are really about abortion, where Kavanaugh refuses to answer and instead expounds upon the virtues of originalism, while salivating conservatives cover their laps with their books like pubescent teenage boys and credulous moderates gawk, wide-eyed, as big words cast spells upon their feeble brains.

And yet, originalism is bullshit.  I'll go further than that.  All philosophies of constitutional interpretation are bullshit.

This is all about abortion.  Consider two people, both entirely hypothetical:

Person A believes that abortion should be legal, and entirely a woman's choice.  Her body, her choice, as a matter of philosophical, ideological principle.  However, Person A does not believe that the Constitution provides for a federally-guaranteed right to an abortion.

Person B believes that abortion should be illegal.  It is the murder of a human life because life begins at conception.  However, Person B believes that, despite it being murder and despite a moral obligation to ban it in all circumstances, we are stuck with it because the Constitution guarantees it as a right, at the federal level.  Person B simply believes that the correct response is a constitutional amendment because Roe was correctly decided.

How frequently have you met either of these people?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  My point, obviously, is that there is a very strong association between your belief about whether abortion should be legal, and whether or not it is constitutionally protected.  That pattern of empirical association is real.

Which came first?  Your opinion about abortion, or your opinion about the Constitution and how it should be interpreted?  Come on.  You know the answer.  You form your opinion about abortion first.  That's one of those core beliefs that forms early and that is really difficult to change.  There are some prominent politicians who have flip-flopped on it (cough... cough...), but attitudes on abortion come first, time-wise.  Why?  Mainly because they are so closely connected to religion.

So, which influences which?  Does opinion on abortion influence interpretation of the Constitution, or does interpretation of the Constitution influence opinion on abortion?  The former.  Why?  Cuz' there ain't no such thing as time travel.  Philosophy of constitutional interpretation is rationalization.  If you say otherwise, may I please borrow your DeLorean?  I'm not a sports guy, but Gray's Almanac could still be of use to me.  Also, where's my hoverboard?!  I want a real one!

Look, people form their core political beliefs before they know shit about any of the abstract concepts that law schools teach and debate as philosophies of constitutional interpretation, yet somehow, conservatives manage to find themselves using a "philosophy" that manages to get them conservative outcomes, and liberals find themselves using a "philosophy" that manages to get them liberal outcomes.  And when their philosophies don't get them the results they want?  They're happy to bend their own rules most of the time.  The important social science point for the day, though, is that the political attitude comes first, time-wise.  Why?  Because people select "philosophies" most likely to give them the results they want most of the time.  And when they don't, it's easy to bend your own rules, particularly at the Supreme Court, because who's gonna stop you?

And originalism, of the "strict constructionist" variety, is the worst because it is the one philosophy that the Constitution tells you that you can't use, making it self-contradictory.  Remember the 9th Amendment?  "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."  Translation:  there are unlisted rights.  Translation:  you can't look to the plain text of the Constitution for a list of rights.  Who says?  The Constitution.  What do "strict constructionists" do with this?  Ignore it.  Why?  Because it provides a more expansive view of rights than they want, and tells them, directly, not to use the philosophy that they are claiming to use.

It also creates a contradiction.  Remember this old paradox?  If you say that you are a liar, and I then claim that every word you say is the literal truth, my statement cannot, by definition, be true.  If you say a bunch of stuff, at least one of your substantive statements must be false, in which case, I am wrong, or every substantive statement is true, and your claim to being a liar is false, and I am wrong.  Originalists are the jackasses who don't see that contradiction.  And they don't want to.  Why not?  Because that was never the point.  It never is.  It's just about finding some pretense, and I hate pretense.  The Constitution tells you that you can't just go by the strict wording, in the 9th Amendment.  If you claim that you just go by the strict wording, the strict wording tells you that you are violating the Constitution.

Originalism is bullshit.  So is every other supposed philosophy of constitutional interpretation.

Yes, I have published in law reviews.  Multiple times.  I give them math.  Math is awesome.

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

So, um... how's Brexit going?  Here's Davy Graham's cover of "Leavin' Blues," from Folk, Blues and Beyond...


Monday, July 9, 2018

How to watch and interpret Trump's Supreme Court pick

Today, our reality show President is going to name his next Supreme Court appointment.  (OK, technically, President Camacho was the victim of sexual assault rather than the perpetrator, but we live in bizarro world.)  According to PredictIt betting as of this morning, Kavanaugh is the favorite, with 48 cents on the dollar, with Barrett next at 36 cents.  Kavanaugh has consistently been the favorite, with the other betting more volatile.  There are many things that can be predicted through prediction markets based on publicly available information.  Remember, though, that this is all about Trump's whims.  Can the people making bets on PredictIt predict Trump's whims?  Eh...

At this point, we turn to the old line from the Tammany Hall kingpin, Boss Tweed.  "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating."  Different politics, different context, and all that, but it demonstrates an important point.  As far as movement conservative leaders are concerned, Donald Trump is nothing more than a useful idiot.  In other contexts, he is best described as a useless idiot, but to movement conservatives, when it comes to court appointments, he's a useful idiot.  Someone else does the nominating, he does the electing.  Selecting.  Whatever.

OK, technically, what Trump is doing is called, "nominating," but I'm playing with language and concept here.  Just go with it for a moment.

Anyway, the Federalist Society.  Part of its purpose is to signal ideological conservatism in the legal profession.  No, that's not what they say, but they're liars.  I hate liars.  They're conservatives.  Go hardcore Federalist Society, and you are signaling ideological conservatism.  This is a useful signal to send because judges don't cast roll call votes on ideologically distinct legislation the way that legislators do, and that's how people like me prefer to assess ideology.  It allows Republican presidents to ensure that they can select ideologically conservative judges who won't go Souter on them, but don't have the written record to get Borked.  The Federalist Society is a part of this process, but by no means the only part.  Conservatives are still fuming about David Souter.

So, there is a process in place to ensure that any name handed to a Republican president is pre-vetted to ensure fealty to conservatism.  What happens if a president steps outside that?  Harriet Miers and the ensuing backlash from the GOP.  Trump is just going to let Boss Tweed, I mean, the Federalist Society do the nominating for him.  He'll do the electing, but so what?  Boss Tweed, I mean, the Federalist Society will be happy.

Yes, I have messed with the language here.  When Trump, "nominates," that is the analog to Tweed's "electing" rather than Tweed's "nominating."  Sorry about that.  Really, though, the Senate is just a formality.  As long as Trump really does go with a conventional pick like Kavanaugh, he'll have no problems because the Democrats have no moves.  If necessary, McConnell will wheel McCain's hospital bed onto the Senate floor, and have a page physically take McCain's unconscious hand to cast the vote.  McCain could die, and it would be Weekend at Mitchy's if necessary.  Collins?  She's a useless idiot to the left, and a useful idiot to the right.  She may say she'll only vote for someone who won't overturn Roe v. Wade, but ignore her.  Trump won't appoint anyone who will uphold Roe, and Collins won't vote no.

Who will Trump appoint?  I have no real idea.  I would lean towards him picking a male because a) he's a misogynist, and b) he believes that a case about him may go before the Court and he will want it ruled on by as many men as possible.  Is that why people are putting more money on Kavanaugh than Barrett?  I have no clue.  It's Trump.

By the way, you may have seen some speculation about Democrats responding to the current situation with actual, serious court-packing the next time they get a chance.  I've been talking about that for a while.  I've been warning of it in the classroom since McConnell pulled his Scalia stunt back in 2016, and writing about it here, starting over a year ago.  See, for example, here and here.  Would the Democrats actually do it?  Right now, I doubt it.  Democrats are cowards, and I can't see that changing, but watch the debate.

Amid the reality show mess of our politics.

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

No political connection today.  Instead, I'll do another tribute to the late, great Henry Butler.  Here he is with Corey Harris.  "Let 'Em Roll," from Vu-Du Menz.  This was the first thing I ever heard from Butler.

In case I didn't make my point on Friday, Henry Butler really was a genius on a whole different level from every other musician around.


Sunday, July 8, 2018

Mike Pompeo's negotiations with North Korea

So, how are things going as Mike Pompeo attempts to iron out the details of Trump supposedly solving the North Korea problem?  According to North Korea, not well.  "Gangster-like mindset" is the phrase getting the most attention, but the gist of it seems to be that once Pompeo shows up to start working out actual policy, suddenly, Kim Jong Un isn't our bestest buddy ever.  Whodathunkit?

Last month, I wrote, "Trump:  Richard Nixon, Neville Chamberlain, or just some useless idiot?" in response to his predictably triumphant rhetoric after the Kim-Trump summit.  The answer, of course, was "useless idiot."  He didn't give anything real away, the way Neville Chamberlain did, even though his rhetoric was a direct callback to the "peace in our time" speech so often misquoted (it's "peace for our time"), but he clearly hadn't really accomplished anything, the way Nixon did in '72, except maybe undoing some of the damage that he, himself had caused with his own escalating rhetoric because he was too stupid to understand the nature of North Korea's history and why they do what they do.

Then, there was the question of the dangers.  Several months ago, I wrote about the dangers of a Kim-Trump summit, and one of the points I made was that Trump wouldn't be allowed to do anything at the summit.  All of the real work would fall on his "handlers" and the diplomatic corps.  Canceling the military exercises with South Korea was basically nothing.  It didn't give up anything in terms of our national security, nor really South Korea's.  It was a symbolic concession.  A real negotiator could have gotten something, thereby demonstrating what a useless idiot Trump is that he got nothing for it, but we didn't really lose anything.  The point, though, is that Pompeo is now charged with doing the real work.

And it's not going so well.  Why not?  Because it never had a chance of success.  North Korea was never going to denuclearize, and Trump's rhetoric after the summit was always bullshit.  Why the change in rhetoric, then?  First, Pompeo won't kiss Kim's ass.  Trump fetishizes totalitarian dictators because he wants to be one, but Pompeo doesn't.  He's just an old-school conservative, but one with a real resume.  West Point, Harvard Law, Cold War Army service, and that's before politics, which took him through the CIA.  Whatever you think of Pompeo's politics, he is not impressed with Kim Jong Un's dictator shit the way Trump is, and he's not going to fall all over himself trying to impress said dictator.  (At least Trump didn't send John Bolton.  We'd be at war by now.)  And Kim knows how to manipulate Trump.  Just flatter the dumbass!  That's all he really wants.  He doesn't care about anything except being praised.  So, Kim lavished Trump with praise.  Why?  Because Kim is smarter than Trump, which, granted, is not a high bar.  Pompeo?  That wouldn't work on him.  Again whatever you think of a brutal, Cold War-era conservative's politics, that's just not going to work on him.  Pompeo has actual policy goals.  He may be more aggressive than you want, but Kim can't manipulate him.

So, we revert to the basic, underlying disagreement.  The US position is that North Korea should not have nukes.  The North Korean position is that North Korea will have nukes because those nukes are the only things keeping their regime from being toppled.  And that worse than useless idiot, John Bolton, even mentioned Libya.  These are irreconcilable positions.  When it's Kim and Trump, one of two things happens.  Either Trump has to try to show everyone how big his... "button" is with some stupid, pointless escalation that risks the existence of humanity for the sake of his massive yet fragile ego, or Trump lets himself get manipulated by a combination of lavish praise and his obvious affinity for totalitarian dictators.  When it's a normal politician like Pompeo (wow-- when did Pompeo become "normal?"), we revert to a basic standoff.

North Korea won't give up their nukes.  That was never in the cards.  Likelihood of a war?  Right now, it doesn't look significantly more likely than before Trump took office, but it is no lower.  Why?  Because it wasn't high before he took office.  Pompeo's efforts?  They won't amount to anything, but at least he'll keep Trump from handing over the Sudetenland DMZ, and he'll keep Bolton from Svengali-ing Trump into pressing his bigly button.  Trump isn't Chamberlain, and Kim isn't Hitler.  (And Bolton is... never mind).  Did you ever think you'd be grateful for Mike Pompeo?

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

Jim Hurst & Missy Raines, "Nothing to Lose," from Two.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Interpreting allegations against Rep. Jim Jordan

You have probably seen the allegations against Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) by now.  As a wrestling coach at Ohio State, he was complicit in covering up abuse.  "Allegedly."  Fine.  I used the "a" word.  Given the history of wrestling coaches in Congress (Dennis Hastert), that's not quite as bad as it could have been, but it's still pretty bad.  Did he do it?

The challenge of assessing this kind of thing is divorcing your assessments of Jordan from your politics.  Trump, of course, defends him completely.  Why?  Well, Trump always defends male abusers on the Republican side.  Particularly on the hard-right, and nobody is harder-right than Freedom Caucuser, Jim Jordan.  My opinion of Jordan has been stated here, and is influenced not just by my dislike of the Freedom Caucus, but by my deep respect for John Boehner.  What did John Boehner have to say about Jordan?  "Fuck Jordan.  Fuck [Jason] Chaffetz.  They're both assholes."  Also, "a terrorist.  A legislative terrorist."  Ideologically, Boehner and Jordan really aren't that far apart.  They agree on policy, mostly.  The difference is that John Boehner made a good-faith effort to try to make the country a better place as he saw it, and Jim Jordan will tear down anyone or anything, and probably murder puppies for the sake of the same tax cut that they both want, and enjoy the destruction more than the tax cut.  Jim Jordan is vile.

This, by the way, is an important test of your cognition.  Can you recognize a shitbag on your own side of the aisle?  If not, you suck, and that's kind of the point here.  John Boehner could recognize the shitbags in his own party, and it wasn't just because he was Speaker and they were causing him problems.  When Gingrich was Speaker, Boehner was among the few to recognize that he was a problem, and tried to lead a coup back in 1997.  He failed, and wound up on-the-outs (he shot at the devil and missed), and it took a decade for him to work his way back up through the ranks, but the point is that Boehner was the type of guy who could recognize a problem on his own side.  You need to be able to do that.

That brings me back to Jordan.  I am predisposed to hate him.  Scratch that.  I already hate him.  That doesn't make him guilty.  There's a process here, and it will play out, but...  I'm impatient, and so are you, so let's have a little fun, shall we?

I believe Jordan helped cover up abuse.  Not because he's an asshole, but because he was in a position of authority within a power structure.

Two news stories.  How often have you encountered each of the following:

A)  Someone in a position of power abused subordinates, it was covered up by the employer/institution when a victim tried to report it, the victim then experienced retaliation, and everything then got worse for the victim.

This is the template scenario for the MeToo movement.  As Terry Crews's testimony to the Senate reminded people, though, the problem of abuse of power goes beyond men abusing women, even if men abusing women is the modal story.  Here's an interesting story that will make a lot of people uncomfortable.  Abusiveness is widespread, and not always perpetrated by people you would expect.

B)  Someone in a position of power abused subordinates in some way, a victim reported it, and the employer/institution handled it in a legally, morally and ethically appropriate manner, fully resolving the issue and punishing the offender without the victim ever having to resort to outside authority because the employer/institution really just cares about doing the right, proper and legal thing.  Yay, them.

One of these is a common news story.  The other is not.  We read about A all the time.  How often do we read B?



At this point, I bring up a basic issue in social science:  observation bias.  Would we see B if it happened?  Would it make the national news if it happened?  Bill Shine?  That scumbag from Fox News who covered up sexual abuse there?  The one our Rapist-in-Chief just hired?  We know about him because what happened at Fox was, of course, A.  The obvious point, from a social science perspective, then, is that B might not make the news.  It could be the norm, in theory then, without us knowing.  Remember what I call "the paradox of news."  An event is newsworthy if it is unusual, leading us to the false conclusion that it is normal.  Do we observe A, leading us to the false conclusion that A is normal, when in fact, B is the norm?

The problem with that notion is that there's another element to the observation bias.  Three little letters, also in the news a lot in regards to these scandals.  I'm sure you have read about them.  Sometimes, there's a... storm... around them.  It's a Stormy issue.

N.

D.

A.

Non-disclosure agreement.  Every institution that receives any such formal complaint will pressure victims to sign some kind of non-disclosure agreement.  (Hi, Michael Cohen!  Flip, motherfucker, flip!  Flip like a Romanian gymnast about whose abuse I won't joke!).  And they love forced arbitration clauses and all that bullshit.  Why do you keep reading about NDAs?  Because when institutions get complaints, if they can get the victim to sign an NDA, they can keep the victim quiet, and that's all they really care about.  No institution really cares about the victims more than preventing the embarrassment and scrutiny that would come with the public revelation of what the abusers did.  So, their priority is to protect the abusers, get the victims to sign NDAs, and cover everything up.  That's a story you keep reading, and when you factor in the observation bias created by the NDA, you understand that what you don't observe isn't necessarily about institutions voluntarily doing the right thing.  Why would they?  They have no incentive, and all of the power.  The point of the NDA is to keep it that way.

I write here about the role of observation bias frequently.  What do you observe, and what don't you observe?  This is an important element to consider in research methodology because most of our statistical tools depend on random sampling.  When we don't have random sampling procedures, we cannot treat our samples as representative.  Understanding the nature of sampling bias is critical to understanding how we interpret data gleaned when we don't have random sampling.  That is the case when we study news stories.  Do we see Scenario A and falsely conclude that it is normal as a demonstration of "the paradox of news?"  Possibly, but that is a difficult interpretation to take when institutions so aggressively pursue NDAs to keep victims quiet.  The fact that institutions place so much importance on NDAs means that they care first and foremost about secrecy, not justice, but from our perspective, that means we must infer a relative paucity of Scenario B because an institution that intent on keeping the victim quiet a) has no incentive to handle things properly, and b) is avoiding sunlight, which, as we say in politics, is the best disinfectant.  In cases of abuse, institutions care about secrecy and maintaining it above all else, including justice.

That is exactly what Jim Jordan is accused of doing.  Jim Jordan is accused of doing what all institutions care first and foremost about doing when presented with allegations of abuse.  Why do I believe it?  It's got nothing to do with Jordan himself, and you need to consider his guilt or innocence independently of what you think of his personality and politics.  Jordan claims that, had he known, he would have blown the whistle.  Whistleblowers are rare, and institutions care most only about keeping things quiet.  That's why the NDA is their favorite tool.

Any time someone tells you they would have spoken up had they known, it doesn't mean they did know, but they're probably full of shit anyway.

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

Danny Gatton, "Quiet Village," from 88 Elmira St.  Gatton wasn't strictly a country musician, but he incorporated country into his sound, and his main instrument was a Tele, so let's go with this for today.


Friday, July 6, 2018

Friday music: If you don't love jazz, blues and everything New Orleans, you hate America

No political theme today.  One of my favorite musicians died this week.  Henry Butler.  In all likelihood, you have never heard of him, but that is a shame.  He was one of the all-time greats, and for those of us whose taste in jazz remains kind of stuck in the 1950s and 1960s, he reminded us that giants still walk among us.  He went beyond jazz, though.  He was a master of jazz, blues, and everything New Orleans-- the greatest city in the world for music.  Butler's touch on the piano rivaled any of the jazz greats (except, I guess, Art Tatum, but nobody else has ever been that great), and his voice... Butler could do everything.  He was also a photographer.  And did I mention he was blind?

I've been a Butler fanatic for many years now.  I found him through a collaboration with blues guitarist, Corey Harris a while back.  Guitar-piano duets in blues have a tradition going back a century.  Think Tampa Red & Big Maceo, or better yet, Lonnie Johnson & Victoria Spivey.  Everyone needs to hear "Toothache Blues" at least once.  (I wouldn't call it "safe for work," though).  I didn't know anything about Butler when I bought the album, but it was obvious that Butler was the real star.  I quickly dug back through his catalog, finding his older jazz stuff, and followed his career closely.  Everyone has regrets about who they never saw live.  For me, Henry Butler is way up near the top.  His last album, Viper's Drag, went back through the history of swing and big band jazz with some interesting orchestration and recording tricks.  Great stuff.  I looked for a full concert to post, but instead, I'll post one obvious blues clip, and then something from Viper's Drag.

Henry Butler.  One of the true musical geniuses of our era.  Listen.



Scott Pruitt doesn't matter. The trade war does.

Look, it is easy to take a moment of schadenfreude for the departure of Scott Pruitt as EPA Director.  I liked to imagine him in his tactical pants, in his Get Smart cone of silence, probably eating lunch with a tactical spork.  You know he has one of those, right?  Here's the thing about Scott Pruitt, though.  At the end of the day, he doesn't really matter.  His corruption was petty and self-serving, but small-time.  It was the kind of thing about which you worry when you don't have to worry about whether or not the Commander in Chief is a Russian pawn starting a stupid trade war with China for no reason.

Should he have been spending on himself the way he did?  Hell no, but what will it cost us, compared to Trump's trade war?  Nothing noticeable.  The tariffs alone will cost us far more, and the indirect effects will be incalculably more.  What about policy?  Pruitt's successor will behave no differently.  Deregulation is the order of the day, regardless of how much the EPA director spends on "tactical pants" (and c'mon, tactical sporks too because that dude's nuts).

In contrast, we are now at war.  A trade war.  Are you paying attention to that?  This is not good.  Trade wars don't have flashy videos of "smart" bombs and Seal Team 6 and other things to get 24 hour cable news anchors up at night, so to speak.  Costs for everyone go up, jobs are lost, and people just hurt.  Economic costs have human costs, too.  Human lives.  As I wrote in my Pratchett post, the human toll of Trump's trade war will be more severe than the human toll of family separations.  You just won't see it as dramatically, or directly.  That's not how economics work, but this thing is getting ramped up.  Our tariffs have gone into effect, and China has retaliated.

Scott Pruitt's resignation?  It is good for the employees he mistreated and against whom he retaliated.  It is nice to see there be consequences for retaliation.  Every policy that he would have enacted will still be enacted, though.  Meanwhile, our mercantilist idiot President has started a trade war because he's a "fucking moron" (source: Tillerson, Rex).  That matters, and it matters more than any "human interest" news story that you see just because someone with a camera found an easy way to stick a face on the screen associated with the tale.

Don't get manipulated.  Focus on what matters.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Important questions about Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX)

There are some very important questions right now about Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).  Read the story for yourself at Roll Call.  He claims that the Department of Justice is surveilling him, referencing the Mueller investigation.  There are important questions here, and I think we can all agree that none are more important than the following:

Is it funnier if he is or isn't being surveilled?  I can't decide, and this is really bugging me.  Get it?  "Bugging?"

Oh, y'all know I love the crazy Members of Congress, and with Michele Bachmann-- dear, sweet Michele-- gone from Congress but not my heart, Louie so often serves as the methadone to my Bachmann heroin.  Should I put an "e" there?  This is kind of a Dan Quayle thing.  I love the English language too.  Of course, if you know your history (or at least, Latin), you know that isn't an accidental spelling, but I digress.

So, I return to the question of the day.  Would it be funnier if Louie really is being surveilled, or if this is just a Freedom Caucus delusion?  Allow me to attempt to make either case.

Case 1:  The delusion is funnier

This is sort of the obvious argument.  Watching fools act like fools has an entertainment value that is distinctive and satisfying.  I admit that one of my Thanksgiving Day traditions is to go on youtube and watch idiots burn down their houses as they attempt to deep-fry turkeys indoors.  Yesterday was a glorious day for watching idiots do other idiotic things.  Does anyone remember Wesley Willis?  No?  Probably not.  Normally, I'd embed a youtube music thing, but not today.  Why not?  Because I'd feel guilty.  Wesley Willis was a severe schizophrenic who would frequently go off his meds, and... record... something... vaguely... music-like.  He would play an old Casio keyboard, and the lyrics were nuts-o.  It was the kind of thing that you a) laughed at, and then b) felt guilty about laughing at because he was actually, seriously mentally ill and needed to be medicated.  Schizophrenia is a serious illness.  It isn't multiple personality disorder.  It needs to be treated properly, and we shouldn't joke about it.

The problem was, if you listened to Wesley Willis, it was hard not to laugh.  And then feel guilty.

Listening to Louie Gohmert?  He's not schizophrenic.  It's like all the joy of listening to Wesley Willis without any of the guilt that makes you feel like you can't laugh.  Wesley Willis needed medication.  Louie Gohmert is just an asshole who also happens to be an idiot.  The delusion would be a gift for those of us who wanted to laugh at Wesley Willis, guilt-free.  It's like a no-calorie, all-you-can-eat meal of deliciousness!

Case 2a:  It's funnier if it's true (Russia edition)

I'm actually going to break this up into two parts, because there are two ways that Gohmert could be surveilled.  It could be something having to do with Mueller, as the Great Sage of Texas seems to think, or something else.  2a shall be Russia-related.  Gohmert seems to connect his belief that he is being surveilled to something about FISA and Mueller, or... something.  Uh...  Whatever, Louie.

How would that happen?  What would lead to that?  The Feds would be tracking a lead from a Russian spy to Louie Gohmert, meaning that a Russian spook tried to contact him.  Could a Russian spook try to get an "in" with a Republican in Congress?  In theory, sure.  In fact, I'd be very surprised if they hadn't tried with someone.  But Gohmert?  Can you imagine a Russian spy trying to work with Louie Gohmert?  Just imagine the Russian spy meeting with Gohmert.  That script writes itself.  Comedy gold.  The spy could talk like Boris Badenov, and Louie would ask if he's some New York jew-boy.

Case 2b:  It's funnier if it's true (unrelated federal crimes)

Let's remember that Members of Congress commit all sorts of creative federal crimes, and Louie Gohmert?  What kind of crimes might he be committing?  Transporting possums across state lines for immoral purposes?  Running a raccoon-fighting ring out of his out-house?  It's Louie Gohmert.  I absolutely can believe that he is guilty of federal crimes.  I absolutely can believe that he is being surveilled by someone.  I absolutely can believe that he is guilty of some particularly stupid crimes because he's Louie Gohmert.  This isn't a complicated money laundering scheme type of guy, and this isn't a master spy that the Russians would employ.  This is the type of mouth-breather who might have actually attended Trump University.  Maybe he thought he bought the deed to some federal lands and tried to sell it for moonshine money, or something.  With Louie Gohmert, who the hell knows?  That's the beauty of this.  There is so much comedy potential here.

Look, realistically, this is a Freedom Caucus paranoid delusion.  I know that, and you know that.  Gohmert can't find his ass with both hands and a flashlight, and since flashlights run on electricity, which is technology way beyond that redneck's comprehension, it's a moot point anyway, and if someone did hand Gohmert a flashlight, that flashlight would somehow find its way up Gohmert's ass without Gohmert ever finding his own ass.  How?  Magic!

Regardless, let's all take a moment to appreciate the fact that Louie Gohmert is around to brighten our day by being such a Louie-toon.  I love this guy.  More Louie Gohmert, please!

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

An Independence Day post: The state of America in 2018

Remember what I wrote yesterday?  It was... incomplete.  Yes, the economy is doing quite well.  Then again, China has experienced rapid economic growth over the last couple of decades.  Are you moving there?  I thought not.  Milton Friedman used to argue that political and economic freedom were inextricably intertwined.  In China, not so much.  Neither Marx nor Mao would in any way approve of the current economic system in China, but political rights are severely curtailed.  Yes, a country can experience economic growth in a wretched political system.  And China isn't alone, particularly if we dig back through history.

Then again, realistically, how many political liberties have been curtailed over the last 1.5 years?  I didn't ask what liberties you think are going to be curtailed in the near future.  The "swing" vote on the Supreme Court is about to be John Roberts.  That changes things.  But, what could you do a year and a half ago that you can't do now?

Read the news without some sort of screaming/crying fit.  That's the big one for me, but I don't think that counts.  Want a break to laugh?  Here.  Enjoy.  On the basic facts, though, the economy is doing well, and my basic liberties are not appreciably curtailed.

Yes, Congress passed and Trump signed a massively stupid tax law, but that isn't fundamentally a challenge to liberty.  That's just stupid legislation.  Yes, there are bad things happening, like the child separations, but I'm a numbers guy.  At the end of the day, the total number of people hurt by this is lower than the total number of people hurt by stupid economic policy, as I discussed in my Pratchett post.  Don't worry, though.  I'll come back to this.

And yet, I don't think America is doing very well.  I pretty much think we're fucked.  Why the contrast?  I pose two questions.  What, if anything, is unthinkable in American politics today, and is there a way back?

As we think about those two questions, let's remember that not all is right.  This is important for understanding what is thinkable.  During the 2016 election, the Russian government hacked the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee in order to embarrass the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton, because the psychopathically evil Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, knew that Donald Trump would be more pliant to his will, and he wanted Trump to win.  During the election, Trump even asked Putin to do more hacking, when he wasn't asking his followers to violently assault protesters and promising to pay their legal bills should they do so.  Trump looked like he would probably lose after a tape came out of him bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault, but less than two weeks before the election, the Director of the FBI, James Comey, decided to violate DoJ policy by making a public statement that the FBI was "re-opening" an investigation into Clinton on what was obviously bullshit-- a newly discovered computer, even though that computer couldn't possibly have any information that would change the FBI's decision not to seek criminal charges.  Comey's decision changed the polls enough to give the White House to Putin's choice-- Trump, who still denies that Russia did the hacking or intended to help him, even though the intelligence agencies of every country on the planet acknowledge that Putin was trying to elect Trump.  Shortly thereafter, a report surfaced that Putin may have blackmail material on Trump personally, and Russian spies made repeated attempts to gain inroads into many members of the Trump campaign, including Trump's own son (keeping in mind that by the admission of Trump's own family, a disproportionate amount of Trump's investors are Russians because no American is stupid enough to give a con man like Trump their money).  Soon after, Trump fires Flynn, who was clearly compromised by Russia, even though he had been warned of that before he hired Flynn as NSA, and then he fires Comey for continuing to investigate Russia-related matters, including Flynn.  First, Trump lies and says that it is because Comey was too hard on Clinton based on the Rosenstein letter, even though Trump's campaign slogan was "lock her up," and then he gives up the game to Lester Holt.  This leads to the appointment of Robert Mueller and a series of indictments including Trump's campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was deep in bed with the Russians, and I'm only scratching the surface here of a still-ongoing investigation without even mentioning Trump's hush money payments to a porn star, his lawyer's goon threatening her child, or any of that because the bigger story is that the entire Republican Party has decided that all investigations into Trump need to be obstructed, lies must be told to defend him, and the most corrupt president in history must be held above the law to prevent negative electoral spillover for the GOP in 2018 or 2020.

This is a party-wide destruction of the concept of checks and balances or any notion of legal constraints on a president when that president is a Republican.

And that brings me to the following question:  what is unthinkable?  Keep in mind everything I just told you.

Why are we in a trade war?  The obvious answer is that Donald Trump is a mercantilist idiot.  I've been ranting about this for a while, but it bears repeating.  Donald Trump is stupid.  That's not what I mean, though.  In formal, legal terms, how is he getting away with this shit?  Congress has the power to tax, right?  There's a loophole.  National security and tariffs.  How is Canada a threat to our national security?  They're not.  Donald Trump is just completely full of fucking shit.

So, why isn't Congress stopping him?  In particular, why aren't congressional Republicans stopping him?  I've written about this before.  Republicans are supposed to hate taxes and love trade.  Trump is committing Republican apostasy, and doing so in a legally... shady way.  It wouldn't be hard to stop him, if Republicans had even the tinniest shred of will.  They just... don't.  We have no checks or balances anymore.  That's scary.  When congressional Republicans would rather let a president raise taxes and start a fucking trade war than check their own guy...

Be afraid.  Be afraid because that means there ain't much that's off the table.  It means the system that is supposed to stop stupid shit from happening isn't in place anymore.

Now, a trade war is mathematically stupid.  I know it's stupid because I can, you know, read.  And think.  And do math.  However, one can understand uneducated people not getting the intrinsic stupidity of trade wars.  So, what else is there to make us worry?  That brings me back to child separations.  A trade war hurts more people, once you go through the math.  However, ripping children away from their parents because the parents commit the horrible atrocity of seeking asylum...  It isn't that the number of people hurt by that stands out in the grand scheme of historical vileness.  It's just that there's no hiding the vileness.  As I wrote in my Pratchett post, Moist deluded himself about what he was because he couldn't see the victims of his schemes.  Ripping screaming children from their parents is nakedly evil.  On a small scale, but it is the nakedness of that evil that caused a reaction in the country.

One can look at the reaction and decide that there is some limit to what people will tolerate.

Or, one can look at the fact that it happened and the fact that the policy has a bunch of fucking racist shitbags supporting it and recognize that the policy is thinkable in America today and recognize the problem.

Why is Donald Trump President?  James Comey.  That's the short answer for the general election.  Add in the fact that the Democrats had won the two previous elections, and a bunch of other stuff, but why did he win the Republican nomination?  Here's the basic truth.  Donald Trump is a racist.  Why did he rise through the ranks of Republican politics?

Birtherism.  A bunch of racist idiots couldn't handle a black guy as president.  So, they told themselves some insane lies.  Those lies were quickly debunked, but (and we'll deal with this more), you can't really debunk a lie, particularly for these people.  So, the lie festered and festered and festered.  And eventually, Donald Trump took up the banner of that disgusting, racist fucking lie.  And it made the base of the Republican Party love him like they have never loved anything before.

He rode that wave of racist bullshit to the hearts of the Republican base.  Then, he started spouting more racist bullshit about Mexican rapists, and I'll skip over most of it, but you get the point.  Donald Trump is a racist.  And that's why his base loves him.

That's why David Duke loves him.

That's why the child separations are now thinkable.

What, then, is unthinkable?  A Republican Congress will never check Donald Trump, he is about to get a solidly conservative Supreme Court, and that leaves only public opinion, but there is a core of people who were even OK with the child separations.  What is thinkable, then, depends on circumstances.

What can happen here?  Note my phrasing.  Whatever fascist nightmare you have is generally listed by someone as something that can't happen here.  But, suppose the economy turns south?  The economy is doing well, as I wrote yesterday, but that has nothing to do with Trump, and exogenous shocks happen.  Apparently, trade wars also happen.  What happens if the economy turns south under Trump?

If politics happen normally, and we get a recession timed for the 2020 election, then Trump loses and things move on, with whatever degradation Trump has done to the system.  Is that really all that happens, though?  Is anything else thinkable?

Here's a thinkable scenario.  The economy turns south, and Trump lies his lying fucking ass off about how the economy is doing.  Among the many vile traits that Trump has, one of the most distinctive is his propensity to lie about everything.  Plausible?  Obviously!  What happens?  I... don't know.  Fox News would probably say that the economy is the greatest in the history of the world, even if we were experiencing a 2008-level crash because they're Fox.  It's state media now.  They didn't do that for Dubya, but as bad as they were then, they have gotten worse, and Dubya didn't pretend everything was awesome.  Trump might.  What about BLS?  What about the government reporting agencies?  They are supposed to be independent of the president.  Does Trump try to shut them up?  There are supposed to be policies in place, but I wouldn't put it past him.  I wouldn't put anything past him.

But wait, you say!  The economy would be tanking!  Wouldn't people notice?  Who'd tell them?  A 10% unemployment rate means 90% employment.  The GOP base will believe anything if Trump and Fox tell it to them, independent voters are morons, and if Trump purges government reporting agencies, what happens?  I don't know.

Next scenario.  Trump decides that the answer is to escalate the trade war.  Santayana, anyone?  It would be massively stupid, counterproductive, and... not incompatible with Scenario 1.  The question for whether or not Trump hangs onto power would be a blame shifting one.  Could he successfully say, "it's all their fault?!"  I don't know.  It would be bad, though.

Now, and here's where things get really scary.  Scenario 3.  Scapegoat a minority within the US.  There's precedent around the world.  And Donald Trump is really, really, really racist.  Fox would spout whatever racist shit he tells them to spout.  His party might cringe, but not one of them would actually stand up to him.  They care more about winning elections, and if they think racial demagoguery will help, they'll be fully on-board.  Besides, if they are intent on refusing to investigate his potential treason with Russia, they'd be on-board with turning economic turmoil into direct attacks on minorities.  This goes to some very ugly places.

The problem, then, is not what is happening now, but the fact that there is nothing, as I see it, that is off the table.  The President is a racist demagogue, a batshit crazy idiot, and possibly a traitor.  His party will do nothing to check his worst impulses, even if that means helping to cover up treason.  If the economy tanks, as trade wars can make them do, we could really see things get ugly.

And even if they don't, we live in a fact-free political world, which leads to my second question.  What is the way back?  I don't see one.  Most of the "it ain't that bad" pieces I see floating around boil down to something like the intro here.  What rights have been curtailed, and how does that compare to, for example, slavery or Jim Crow?  What is happening now, objectively, isn't a frontal assault on our rights, and the country made progress.  However, making progress required acknowledging the facts that slavery existed, and Jim Crow existed.  You can't make progress without facts.

Remember how Donald Trump came to power:  by lying about where Obama was born, and then setting new land-speed records in the competitive sport of political lying.  However, Trump is the natural conclusion of the direction the Republican Party had been heading for years.  Trump didn't start the birther movement.  He just picked up the torch.  Remember death panels?  I'm not going to go through a history of insane lies but once you remember that birtherism predated Trump, and that Palin got the entire GOP on-board with that "death panel" bullshit, you remember that the GOP was committed to lying as a central political strategy before Trump came along, and no, it's not symmetric.  Yes, all politicians lie, but Republicans do it far more.  It isn't close.  Birtherism.  Death panels.  I'm not going to do a full accounting here, but it isn't close.

And lies have power.  At the electoral level, the issue is cognitive dissonance.  That is the uncomfortable feeling of trying to hold two inconsistent ideas in your head at the same time.  The GOP committed to a strategy of all-lies-all-the-time before Trump ever came along, and a consequence of that has been a minimization of cognitive dissonance for the GOP base.  Everything is uniformly horrible when Democrats have a smidge of power, and everything is perfect when the Republicans have power.  No shades of grey.  No complexity.  Hence, they must sacrifice their firstborn children to the living god that is Donald Trump.

Once people are accustomed to living in a fact-free universe in which they never have to experience cognitive dissonance, how do you convince them to come back to the real world?  How do you reach them?  That's the difference between segregation and now.  During the civil rights movement, there was agreement that segregation existed.  The argument was a moral one.  Today?  Not only is there a moral argument-- Trumpkins live in a fact-free universe.  And they like it that way because if they ever had to grapple with the fact that Trump's campaign manager was in debt to Russian oligarchs and offering to use his position with Trump to "get whole" with them (as an example), it would make them uncomfortable.  A cognitive dissonance-free life is an easy life.  The easiest way to get it is to live in a fact-free world, believing every Trump lie and tuning out every real information source.

And if you live that way, year after year, how do we convince you that, no really, you need to come back to the fact-based universe, and everything you think you know is false?  How do we reach these people?  Brendan Nyhan has shown that debunking myths, or rather, attempting to debunk myths just makes these dipshits more deeply committed to their crazy beliefs.

Lies have been allowed to proliferate for so long that I don't see a way back.  That really is different from the era of slavery or Jim Crow.  It's not that we are in as bad a situation now.  It's that things can get very bad from here, and I just don't see a way back.  Not without facts, and this country tolerates lies.  Or rather, one party embraces lies, and the press has let them get away with it under the premise that everything must be declared symmetric even when that, too, is a lie.

In The Federalist Papers, Madison argued that competing factions could check each others' worst impulses.  That doesn't work.  When one party decides it will tolerate any evil within itself for the sake of power, the entire constitutional system breaks down.  The Republican Party has decided that it will not check a Republican president, no matter what he does.  That is the core issue I had been addressing in the "On power and corruption" series, which sort of petered out.

What's left?  The country may very well get through Trump.  He hasn't started a new war.  The economy is fine, but the more he escalates his stupid, fucking trade war, the more problems it will face.  The problem is the damage done to the political system by the Republican Party as they attempt to ride out a Trump Presidency-- the complete elimination of all checks and balances and an enthusiastic embrace of insane lies, which had been a prominent part of their pre-Trump arsenal anyway.  I just don't see how we get truth or checks and balances back.  And that leaves a lot on the table that wasn't on the table before.

So, yes, be scared.  Happy 4th.


Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Actually, America is doing fine (keep reading-- I'm going somewhere with this)

Yes, you read that correctly.  I really should begin this post with the following statement:  "They're right, of course.  Quite right."  Go watch Change of Mind, which is the Prisoner episode from which I derive the title of the blog, and you'll get it.

Anyway, let's check in on GDP growth and unemployment.  For economic numbers, as always, we turn to my good buddy, FRED.  Federal Reserve Economic Data.  Let's see how things are doing in the first year and a half of the new administration, shall we?





WOW!!!!  I mean, look at those GDP growth numbers!  Growth all along, and 16.5% growth in Q2 of the second year of the new administration?!  Holy shit!  Steadily dropping unemployment too!  I mean, that's just spectacular!

Oh, wait.  Fuck, that's Carter.  Did you even bother to look at the x-axis?  OK, that was a nasty trick I pulled, but hey, it was fun, right?  Now, you have to ask yourself a question.  One of two things is the case.  Either Carter was a way better president than you have been told, or the economy can do well, particularly for a year and a half (or more), with even a shitty president.

Hint:  you don't need to upgrade your assessment of Carter as President.  He sucked.  Then again, my standards have changed, but we'll get to that, particularly tomorrow.

How are things doing today?  (No tricks this time).  Let's look at the same graphs for Trump, to the degree that we can (we don't actually have Q2 numbers for 2018 yet).





Comparison?  The unemployment rate is lower now than at the same point in Carter's term, but the trend is similar, and Trump's Presidency simply started from a lower starting point.  GDP growth is nothing compared to what it was in the first year and a half of Carter's term.

Here's the basic point.  Unless it is hit by exogenous shocks, the economy tends to grow.  Capitalism works.  In Sunday's post, I gave you a primer on presidential influence on the economy.  There isn't that much, in normal circumstances.  That's a good thing, particularly given America's spotty electoral record when it comes to making intelligent choices.  Remember:  DDRRDDRRDDRRDDRRDDR....

How many elections would I have to flip to get that as the perfect presidential election record from 1944 through 2016?  One.  1980.  If that's what the American people do, would you want them making choices about who "runs" the economy?  I wouldn't.  I'd rather have an economy that runs its own damned self, that you very much, Adam Smith.  There are too many fucking mercantilists left.  Books, people.  They're called, "books."

So, the point for today is that the economy mostly chugs along.  It has continued chugging along for the last year and a half, and it will continue to chug along after... this... passes, unless things start glowing in the dark.  Even trade wars are temporary.  From an investment perspective, don't do anything stupid.  Trade wars must end, and when they do, you'll want your money invested in a widely diversified portfolio, passively managed.

All other things being equal, the economy grows.  Of course, Carter had some problems towards the end of his term, and you can't assume it will grow at a constant rate, but unless Donny really does launch the nukes, the economy will grow, particularly if he backs off this stupid, fucking trade war.  If you are properly invested, you will make money.

See?  I can be bright and cheery.  All I had to do was chop off the last two years of Carter's Presidency to make it look like he was awesome, and even then, Trump looks lousy by comparison!  OK, I suck at this "cheery" thing, but you knew that.  Remember, though, the economy is doing well.  Facts are good.  I like facts.  Never try to talk yourself out of facts just because they get in the way of your politics.  Right now, some of us are stockpiling facts...  Anyway, economy=good.

Of course, you know there's another side to this, right?  That'll be for tomorrow.  Things are, um... marinating, which is what should be happening in preparation for the 4th.  Remember: marination is the key to a proper BBQ!  OK, if I'm being technical, low temperature is the key, but I'm trying to do a metaphor.  Get your marinade going, though.

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

I'm going to cheat today.  I should do something regarding Mexico, but I don't actually like most music from Mexico.  I do, however, really like Los Lobos.  A very under-appreciated band because of how they got kind-of famous, but a great band.  Here's "Luz De Mi Vida," from Good Morning, Aztlan.