Sunday, April 22, 2018

The DNC lawsuit against the Trump campaign

Because, why not?

I won't comment on the legal merits of the case because a) I'm not a lawyer, and b) I don't think the case will be settled on the merits anyway.  The case will be seen by the court system as i) a partisan conflict, and ii) an attempt to overturn an election.  Trump will win.  Period.

So, let's perform a task we call "backwards induction," from game theory.  What happens when Trump wins the case.  Fill in the blanks for how he talks/tweets about the legal victory.  It legitimizes the 2016 election.

Why do that?  Given the Democrats' inevitable loss, the only thing they have to gain is if they think they can move public opinion with some revelation during the case, but public opinion of Trump, while perhaps not genius, has been stable.  Remarkably so.  Gallup has had him right around 40% as almost a fixed point.  Donald Trump's 40% approval rating is our northern star of American politics.  Opinions of him are fixed.

I... just don't see the point here.  The 2018 midterm elections are right around the corner, and then there's 2020.  Midterm elections run against the party of the president.  The question is, by how much?  Potentially by enough to swing one or both chambers.  Right now, betting at PredictIt gives the Democrats an edge for the House, and Republicans an edge for the Senate.  Why the difference?  It's a matter of which seats are up this year.  I'll write more about that later this year as we see the landscapes shape up.  How susceptible are these probabilities to party strategy?  Beyond candidate recruitment?  That's... really hard to say, but that's where the DNC's efforts should be.

2020?  Statistically, most incumbent presidents are reelected.  Carter lost amid serious economic problems.  George H.W. Bush lost amid public misperceptions of economic problems (the recession was long over, but people are... not very bright), but mostly, the GOP had won three presidential elections in a row, and it was, as Alan Abramowitz says, "time for a change."  Johnson?  Complicated.  Basically, incumbents tend to win unless something weird is happening, but weird things happen.  Trump won't be facing the "time for a change" penalty.  What kind of economic or international issues will there be?  No clue.  Beyond that, then, I default to the observation that incumbent presidents win more than they lose, and they only lose under special circumstances.

Translation:  Democrats, if they were smart about this, wouldn't push this lawsuit.  They'd focus on the House and Senate, and try to use majorities there to a) draw out more scandals with subpoena power, and b) stir up as much trouble as possible to pin the blame on Trump.  The worse things get, the better that gets for Democrats.  "Politics ain't beanbag."

This lawsuit, though?  The legal merits are irrelevant.  The Democrats will lose, and it will probably backfire, even though, c'mon.  Trump's campaign did collude.  "Politics ain't beanbag."

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

Doc Watson, "Froggie Went A-Courtin'"

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Giuliani cutting a deal with Mueller

Are we supposed to believe that Rudy "9/11" Giuliani can cut a deal with Mueller to end his investigation?  I doubt it.  The phrase, "time for some game theory," has been taken by others, but it has its place.

Here's the basic premise of any kind of "deal," in the true sense.  A deal can be cut when two negotiators can each improve their utilities over what happens without a deal.  Thus, their interactions cannot be zero-sum.  It cannot be a circumstance in which one person gaining must come at the loss of the other actor.  Here, of course, you see the problem for Donald Trump's world view, and any true deal.  He fancies himself a dealmaker, but he views the world in zero-sum terms, which has important implications that I have been addressing for a while.  There's no deal to be had in a zero-sum world.  Just cons.  That's why he is a con artist.

Most of the world, though, is not zero-sum.  Thank you, Adam Smith.

What about prosecutors and defendants?  How do they cut deals?  Their interactions aren't quite zero-sum.  Prosecutors care more about their conviction rates, whereas defendants might presume a conviction, and care more about reducing the penalty.  If you know you are likely to be convicted of something, you plea down the charges and accept a lesser penalty.  The prosecutor gets a sure thing conviction, reducing uncertainty from the possibility of some jackass juror doing something stupid, and the defendant eliminates the possibility of the tail-end extreme sentence.  Deal.  Yes, their preferences are different, but they aren't quite zero-sum because there are multiple elements to evaluate.

Note, though, that any kind of deal in a prosecutorial sense relies on the premise that a conviction of someone is likely.  You plea to something and reduce the prosecutor's uncertainty over the conviction in order to reduce the likelihood of an extreme sentence.  That's how a deal works.

Enter Rudy Giuliani.  He's a former prosecutor.  He, ostensibly, knows how this works.  I'm just covering this from a game theory perspective because my training is in economics and political science rather than law, but this actually is a basic problem in game theory, and if you want to see a more elaborate, qualitative write-up, try Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's The Predictioneer's Game.

So, um... what would Giuliani, or Trump give to Mueller to make this go away?  Plea to something?  No, there's no way Trump does that.  Hand over Kushner?  I could see Trump wanting him out of the way to get to, um...

No, that's not gonna happen either.

You start to see the problem.  And even if Trump hands someone over as part of any deal, he then undercuts that with a pardon.  (Hi, Scooter!  Enjoying that pardon yet?)

An actual deal requires compromise.  Trump won't do that.  There's nothing for Giuliani to negotiate.  However, imagine the job interview.

Rudy walks into the Oval Office and tells Donny, "Hans Donny*, Bubby, I'm your white knight.  I'm here to negotiate."  Donny, thinking that a "negotiation," means getting the other side to give you something for nothing, buys into Ellis's Rudy's bullshit.  So, he hires Ellis Rudy to try to cut a "deal" with John McClane Robert Mueller.  Ellis Rudy gets a high-paying job to feed his coke habit, but we've all seen the movie, right?  What's John McClane's Robert Mueller's response?

As I have said repeatedly, though, Trump won't get impeached, tried or convicted.  Embarrassed?  Sure, but that's about it.  Can he or Giuliani cut a deal to shut down the investigation, though?  No.  All they can do is fire Mueller.  He isn't actually as badass as John McClane, or rather, Trump has comparatively more political firepower than Hans Gruber.

* I formally apologize to Alan Rickman for this comparison.

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

I can make a strong case that this guy is the greatest guitarist of all time.  Scotty Anderson, "Sweet Sue," from Triple Stop.

Friday, April 20, 2018

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

Miles Davis, "Sweet Sue, Just You," from 'Round About Midnight.

Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and a prominent political scientist

Walk into a bar.

Sorry.  I couldn't resist.

Anyway, the prominent political scientist here is Bill Jacoby, at Michigan State, and now former editor of the American Journal of Political Science.  Jacoby is a big name guy, AJPS is probably the number 2 journal in the field, and Jacoby is at the center of the current big scandal in political science.  Rather than summarize it, I'll just link to the write-up from Inside Higher Ed.  Short version:  sexual harassment, abuse of power.

Think about Bill Cosby.  He's guilty, right?  We know this, right?  Not all accusations are true.  However, when you have enough women telling the same story, independently, the probability that they are all lying gets really low.  Cosby is a rapist.  Prior to the public revelations a few years ago, though, would you have looked at him and said, "wow, now that dude drugs and rapes women!"  Probably not.  He presents himself as a safe and upstanding person.

Then, there's Donald Trump.  He is... out of the closet and living his truth.  When the Access Hollywood tape came out, who honestly had their image of Trump significantly altered?  Trump presents as what he is, publicly and privately.

My point is that you may think you can tell who is scum and who isn't.  You can't.  This is an important part of how politics and society address sexual assault.  Most of the reliable estimates I have seen are that around 20% of women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  That's not counting sexual harassment, because then the numbers are just too high.  It's too crass by far to say they should have seen it coming because predators act like Donald Trump, because they can act like Cosby too.

And that brings me to Jacoby.  I know Bill Jacoby.  Is he guilty?  The formal investigation hasn't come to a finding, but he stepped down as editor of AJPS.  And... he just doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would act like that.  The descriptions of behavior in the Inside Higher Ed story seem like a different kind of person than the one I have known for almost two decades.

But then, could I tell?  Could you?

Were you able to tell that Cosby is what he is before everything came out?

How people present themselves and what they really are don't always match.  Trump is interesting in that there is no distinction between his presentation and what he truly is.  Yes, he lies repeatedly and egregiously, but his lies are so transparent and stupid that he might as well have the words, "con man," tattooed on his forehead.  Of the many nicknames I have bestowed upon him, perhaps "Tommy Flanagan" is the most apt, and in that sense, if you are so up-front in your dishonesty, you are presenting as what you are-- that which should be avoided.  Nobody attempting to perform any good-faith analysis with any real brainpower could miss that Trump is reprehensible.

Cosby?  He hid his monstrosity well.  Then, on the other side, there are people who are, for example mildly autistic.  By missing social cues and behaving in unusual ways, they can come across in alienating ways without any ill intent.  And that's just one counterexample.

Do you really think you can find the monsters hidden in society?  Trump?  That's easy because he doesn't hide what he is.  Cosby?  He makes an important point.  Sometimes, the monsters hide behind smiles, manipulation, charm and cunning.  They're the worst because they're the hardest to find.  Thinking about that almost makes you a misanthrope, doesn't it?

I have a hard time passing judgment on Jacoby because, like I said, he has always treated me well.  Then again, I am clearly not his type, and by my own rules, I should believe multiple women telling similar stories.  See:  Cosby, Bill.  What do you do?  It really is harder when it's someone you know who has treated you well.

This is an on-going scandal in political science.  I'd type, "we'll see what happens," but, um...  no.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Will Michael Cohen flip on Trump?

I suppose this is the new speculation.  So, here is the question.  Everything that Trump does, in terms of the structure of his inner circle, is built on the premise that loyalty to Trump is of the utmost importance.  Hence, his reliance on family rather than actually doing what he promised-- hiring the best and the brightest.

Is Trump actually any good, then, at filtering out those who are disloyal to him?  If so, then he doesn't have to worry about Cohen flipping.  He kept Cohen on as his attorney because Cohen was loyal, having a grasp of Cohen the person.  Reading loyalty, like any other attribute, is a skill.  Does Trump have that skill?

I'll make an analogy to a basic problem that Trump claims to understand-- investment.  Trump claims to be a businessman.  He's a con artist, but he claims to know how to make money.  Some investment managers outperform the market.  Most don't.  Most underperform the S&P 500.  That means that if you throw darts randomly at a dartboard, with the size of each component proportionate to each company's share of the S&P, and invest that way, you'll beat most investment managers.  Yes, really.  What about the ones who beat the market?  Mostly dumb luck.

Can Trump beat the averages picking out loyal people?  Probably not.  He picks sycophants who feed his ego.  Like... his kids.  If that's how he assesses loyalty, then he's in real danger of Cohen flipping.  Then again, he may have an actual skill.  Has Flynn flipped on him?  As of now, we don't know.  Manafort is in a separate category given how bad his legal situation is, but he really needs that pardon (hi Scooter!).  Papadopoulos wasn't an inner circle guy.  Having him flip says nothing about Trump's ability to detect loyalty.

Can Trump assess loyalty?  That is the question of the day.  His insistence on surrounding himself with family, though, suggests a lack of confidence in his ability to do so.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Mitch McConnell, Robert Mueller and the "axiom of revealed preferences"

Mitch McConnell will not allow a vote on the proposal to shield Mueller from being fired.

Shocker.  Total shocker.  Observe my absolute and complete surprise.  McConnell's explanation, as usual, is what we call, in political science terms, a "lie."  I really wish people didn't shy away from calling out lies for what they are, but... he lied.  Again, shocker.  McConnell, and the rest of GOP leadership, have been saying that Trump won't fire Mueller, so there isn't a need to pass any legislation shielding Mueller from being fired, which, of course, ducks the point.

Now, suppose that the probability of Trump firing Mueller were actually zero.  If that were true, then passing any legislation to shield Mueller would be silly.  Would it do any harm?  No.  Would it distract from the busy legislative calendar of.. um... that... stuff... that...

No.  There is nothing else happening in Congress, except for attempts to block the exits as people like Charlie Dent flee in terror.

Does McConnell believe that the probability of Trump firing Mueller is zero?  No.  No, he does not.  PredictIt currently has the odds of Mueller being out by the end of the month at 5%, and 16% for the end of June, roughly.  Rosenstein's odds are worse, but firing him is the first step towards firing Mueller.  As I argued a couple of days ago, I don't think it is obvious that Trump fires Mueller because at the end of the day, the GOP will protect Trump, no matter what Mueller finds, so... why bother?  McConnell may very well be the one who made that promise, and if that's the case, that may be the basis of his confidence.  Consider:  McConnell says to Trump, "don't worry, there's no way the Democrats get 67 Senate seats, and we'll never vote to convict, so back off of Mueller.  You'd just create an unnecessary scandal."  Seems kind of plausible, no?  But, anyone who has absolute confidence in Trump's... stability...

No.  Just... no.

This brings me to the social science lesson for the day, coming from economics.  The axiom of revealed preferences.  People reveal their preferences through their actions.  McConnell wants Trump to have the ability to fire Mueller.  If he didn't, he'd bring legislation to the Senate floor to take that power away.  Why?

McConnell's goal, just like that of every other Republican leader, is to protect Trump.  If Trump goes down, the party goes down, and McConnell is, first and foremost, a partisan.  Right now, it is uncertain whether or not the best way to shield Trump is to fire Mueller.  If all Mueller can do is charge Manafort, Flynn and a few lower-level people while making some statements about Trump, the fallout from firing Mueller might outweigh the benefit of stopping him now.  On the other hand, if he's getting too close to something dangerous on Trump, Donny needs the ability to fire him to protect the party.  The challenge for Trump, and for McConnell, is knowing what that point is.  Since McConnell is looking at this through a partisan lens, he wants Trump to be able to shut down the investigation.  As far as McConnell is concerned, Trump's dangers are his dangers.

McConnell will never, under any circumstances, allow Trump to be removed from office.  Even if the Democrats get a majority in the House and impeach Trump, McConnell will ensure that the Senate doesn't get 67 votes to convict.  Trump is safe.

McConnell's job just might be easier if Mueller gets fired, so McConnell needs to make sure Trump retains that power.

McConnell knows Trump has considered firing Mueller.  Repeatedly.  He reads the news.  He knows Trump tried to fire Mueller already.  He knows it's on the table.  When he says Trump would never do it, and that's why he won't hold a vote... he's just lying, the way Mitch McConnell does.  Axiom of revealed preferences.  He wants Trump to retain the power to fire Mueller because it might make it easier to continue shielding Trump from any and all legal consequences.

That's the primary purpose of the Republican Party right now.  They already got their tax cut.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Political science papers that can't be written, but should, Part I: Rationalizing Republicans

During the 2016 campaign, my posts had a lot of themes, but two in particular are relevant today.  First, I wrote about Donald Trump as a social science quasi-experiment.  Second, I wrote about "valence."

A quasi-experiment is different from a true experiment.  In a true experiment, a researcher randomly assigns subjects to a treatment or a control group.  If the treatment and control group exhibit different patterns on some other variable (the "dependent variable," in technical jargon), that is because of the treatment.  How do we know?  Because the treatment was randomly assigned.  In social science, and political science in particular, we don't often get to do true experiments.  We can, however, look for ways to take advantage of "quasi-experiments."  An exogenous shock will occur, changing the state of the world.  Compare the before-and-after circumstances, and as long as the shock is truly exogenous, the difference you observe between before and after is the result of the exogenous shock.

Then, there are what we call Valen's valence characteristics.  Derived from Donald Stokes's distinction between "positional" issues and "valence" issues in his 1963 APSR paper, valence characteristics are the traits that all voters just supposedly want, like competence and honesty.  You may want a candidate closer to you in the policy space (the left-right dimension, if we reduce everything to a single dimension), but everyone wants someone more competent and honest, right?

Donald Trump was so different from every other candidate that he was... a shock to the system.  The question is whether or not he can be considered an exogenous shock.  Not... really.  He didn't come out of nowhere.  From Newt Gingrich to Sarah Palin to birtherism... put all of that together, and the movement within the GOP towards Trump was there going back decades.  I'm not going to say, "we should have seen it coming," but it isn't appropriate to say that he was a truly exogenous shock.  However, he didn't exactly have uniform support, even within the GOP in the primaries.

Next, valence.  The tricky thing about valence is as follows.  If you ask Republicans right now, a lot of them really will tell you that they think that Trump is competent and honest.  Why?  Because assessments of valence characteristics are often endogenous.  They are rationalizations for how we assess candidates, and that is mostly about partisanship and other factors.  So, Republicans decide they like Trump.  Within the GOP, Trump gathered supporters because he led the birther movement.  These people then decide, because they liked Trump, that Trump must be competent and honest.  The problem is, what's the direction of causation?

This is where quasi-experiments come in.  In normal elections, with candidates who are at least vaguely comparable, distinctions are hard to make and direction of causation is hard to assess.  Take any two normal candidates, and Democrats will say the Democrat is more competent and honest, and Republicans will say the Republican is more competent and honest.  Beyond that, what do you do?  If the candidates are comparable...  you see the problem.

At the congressional level, there are real distinctions because most congressional challengers are schlubs, and there is some interesting work that has been done with expert assessments of the candidates to rate them on their valence traits.  Lots of good work here by Walter Stone, and various co-authors.  Check out his new book for a really good take on valence at the congressional level.  The challenge there is that the discrepancies are big, but voters frequently don't know much of anything about the low-valence candidates.

The problem is, we need an election in which there is a really low valence candidate, well-known by the voters.  What would happen?  How would that candidate's party evaluate him?

What would happen if you found the single most incompetent, dishonest, sleazy, vile, possibly treasonous candidate... someone who clearly lusts after his own daughter, brags about committing sexual assault...  just try to imagine any bad trait, and give the candidate that bad trait.  Put it all together in one package.  What would happen?  Would voters of that candidate's party still rationalize those traits away and support him?  Would those voters still say, in surveys, "yeah, he's actually competent and honest, at least relatively speaking?"

Of course, we have the endogeneity problem.  Trump didn't come out of nowhere.  The GOP nominated him because the Republican Party has been trending in that direction for decades, but from a research design perspective, the assessments of those who voted for candidates other than Trump in the primaries are still going to be informative.  From a social science perspective, this is a tractable problem.  This can be done.  The analysis can be conducted.

So, what's the problem?  Simple.  The analysis rests on the common assumption that Trump is an exogenous shock because he is so uniquely vile, and such a clearly low-valence candidate that we must assume, as an analytic point, that anyone who rates him highly on any valence trait is simply rationalizing.

I am willing to do that, and to say that.  I have never seen any signs of intelligence or competence from Trump.  He lies more than any politician on record.  The corruption in his campaign and White House is beyond comprehension.  As far as I am concerned, these points are beyond dispute.  Anyone claiming that Trump is competent or honest is not someone with whom I would bother to engage in a debate.

And yet, could I publish this?  Nope.

Too bad.

I call this "Part I" because I suspect I'll be doing more of these.

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

I know nothing about Syrian music.  Screw it.  Here's Ali Farka Toure, "Timbarma," from his self-titled album.  I don't think I've posted him yet, which is odd.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Why Trump might not fire Mueller

Short answer:  Devin Nunes.

Between Trump's escalating war of words with Comey, his decision to pardon Scooter Libby, the raid on Cohen's office and increasing speculation that Rosenstein ought to... make preparations, it is pretty tempting to think that Mueller's days are numbered.  Fire Rosenstein, replace him with a Trumpist, have that Trumpist fire Mueller and replace him with another Trumpist, bury everything, pardon Flynn, Manafort, Cohen and anyone else even remotely at risk, and be done with it.  Why not just pull the trigger?  Given the increasing legal danger, it seems to be the way things are going anyway.

The primary objections to this strategy are either that it will provoke outrage, or result in leaks.

Regarding outrage, from Trump's perspective... so what?  When has the prospect of provoking outrage ever stopped him from doing anything?  In this case, I think he'd be right.  There would be protests, and feckless objections from the Democratic minorities in the House and Senate, but there really wouldn't be any legal recourse.  The only legal response would be impeachment, and if he pardons himself, it's not even clear that is appropriate.

Leaks?  Seize every document in Mueller's hands during the Saturday Night Massacre, and declare them national security secrets.  Bullshit?  Yes, but it makes everything hearsay, unless Mueller's people smuggle stuff out.  It depends on how he runs that operation.  His people have been tight-lipped.  The flip-side of that is that documents are probably easy to control once you pull a Saturday Night Massacre.

For a normal president, I can see the arguments holding weight.  For Trump?  Why hasn't he done it?

As I keep writing, over, and over, and over again, he will never be impeached.  He will never face any charges.  Why?  His party is absolutely, 100% committed to protecting him because once they acknowledge the level of criminality in his campaign and administration, the party faces 1974/1976-type consequences.  None of them are willing to face that.  Thus, they declare all accusations to be false, and nothing but partisan smears, turning everything into a haze of partisan bickering, insulating Trump, and the Republican Party to the degree possible, from the consequences of Trump's criminality.

Trump has almost certainly received direct assurances from congressional Republicans that they will never let him be impeached.  If they will never let him be impeached, then what does he have to lose?

Embarrassment.  However, even that can be mitigated by the Devin Nunes effect.  No matter what Mueller says or finds, congressional Republicans will pull something like "the Nunes memo."  Was that thing total bullshit?  Yes, hence my references to Nunes as a stoner-philosopher who challenged our conceptions of knowledge itself.

Suppose the golden shower tape is real.  Suppose Mueller gets the tape.  Suppose Mueller gets a tape of Trump committing treason by promising the Russians something in exchange for keeping the golden shower tape secret, and then finds documents of Trump actually doing what he promised the Russians.

How many congressional Republicans would turn on Trump?

The correct answer is zero.  The tape is fake.  The documents are fake.  Conspiracy.  Deep state.  Mueller is a Russian spy, trying to destabilize the government, and Hillary is behind it and lock her up and pizzagate and chemtrails and the missing emails would prove it's all true and that's what the Benghazi attack was all about and Vince Foster saw it all coming!

How do you think Fox News would cover it?  Sinclair Broadcasting?  Talk radio is still a thing, you know.

Devin Nunes goes to work putting together another "memo," that document becomes gospel truth to the GOP.  Sarah Huckabee Sanders goes on camera, lies her ass off to a bunch of White House press corps journalists who pretend that there is a point to asking her questions...

Of course, if this happens before 2020, Trump loses.  He doesn't get impeached, but he does lose.  Unless there are more HILLARY EMAILS!!!!


The longer the Mueller investigation goes on, the more danger Trump faces.  The risks are simply mitigated, and I am exaggerating here because, c'mon.  The Russians aren't handing the golden shower tape to Mueller unless Trump really steps out of line with Putin.

Realistically, what might Mueller have found?  A lot of contacts between the Trumpists and the Russians.  Like, oh, say, Michael Cohen in addition to everyone else.  Anything short of the golden shower tape itself, and the GOP will set Nunes to work on it, everything fades into a partisan haze, the GOP remains solidly behind Trump, and he gets away with it.

So, why bother firing Mueller?

Yes, Trump will get away with it.  Everything.  All of it.

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

Big Bill Broonzy, "Get Away."

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Syria and "wagging the dog"

I have no idea how to handle Syria.  Neither does Trump.  He doesn't have a plan.  A few missiles aren't a plan.  One of the scenarios about which I have been warning throughout Trump's Presidency, though, is that the more frustrated he gets on the domestic front, the more likely it gets that he turns to military attacks elsewhere.  Comey's book, the raid on Cohen's office, his trade war backfiring (predictably), Stormy Daniels... add this up and you can see why Trump wants to a) change the subject, and b) do something that will convince people that he isn't Putin's stooge.  Since Assad is Putin's buddy, attacking Syria serves both purposes.

So, Wag the Dog, right?

Trying to figure out precisely what is happening in Trump's Trump-brain is a mug's game, but it is worth reminding you how the phenomenon normally works.  We call it the "rally-'round-the-flag" effect.  In times of international crisis, the president's approval rating tends to go up.  I say, "tends" because it doesn't always happen.  It is conditional on elite consensus.  Remember that most people, regardless of what they say in polls (bunch of damned liars...) are partisans.  They take cues from partisan leaders.  How do you get a president with an approval rating significantly above the baseline partisan divisions?  (Or below it?)  Signaling.  During an international crisis, like a war, or pseudo-warlike-conflict-type thing since we don't declare war anymore, the opposition party tends to say, "we're all Americans and we stand together," or some other kumbaya hippie shit.  Except hippies tend to oppose the killing part, so they stand on the other side, but you get the point.

Anyway, that's the normal pattern.  Trump's approval at Gallup right now is at 41%.  And that's a high point for him, relatively speaking.  Why?  Part of it is... he's Trump and he goes out of his way to alienate anyone who isn't already in the Trump cult of personality, but part of it is that Democratic leaders signal to Democratic partisans that he is a festering boil on the body politic.

What if they didn't?  Rally effect.  If we had a major international crisis and Democratic leaders signaled to their base that they should support Donny-boy because we're all 'mer'cans, his approval rating would go up.  That conditional effect, based on signaling, is the key.  See, for example, Richard Brody's work in Assessing the President.  The flip-side is that without elite consensus, no rally effect.

Wagging the dog doesn't work without elite consensus.  That consensus doesn't develop when the other side calls it "wagging the dog."  It's kind of like the 9/11 hijackers and box-cutters.  You know how the TSA won't let you take anything even remotely sharp on a plane?  This is stupid.  Why?  Because the 9/11 thing can't happen anymore.  9/11 worked because the people on the first three planes thought that by cooperating, they'd live.  Nope.  Once the people on the fourth plane found out what was happening, they fought back, and the fourth plane crashed before reaching its target (probably the White House).  Some numbskull tries to hijack a plane with a box-cutter now?  He gets tackled to the floor immediately, and never makes it to the cockpit.  It doesn't work when you know what's happening.

Call it wagging the dog, and it doesn't work.  Why not?  No elite consensus.  Maybe Joe Manchin, or some other red state Democrat might back Trump if this escalates, but the very fact that looking around, you see so many references to Wag the Dog, combined with the general reluctance of Democrats right now to go along with escalation, and Trump's capacity to get much of a bump out of this?  Limited.

What he can do, though, is manipulate headlines.  This matters.  If he wants a good time to fire Rosenstein and Mueller, the best time is when the press is caught up covering military actions in Syria, and Lindsey Graham is getting off on that.

Here's the betting on Rosenstein sticking around to the end of June.  Right now, the money is against him.  I'd say the odds are even more against him than that, and firing Rosenstein is the first step to firing Mueller.

Hey, look!  Missiles!  It may not boost Trump's approval rating, but it doesn't have to.  All it has to do is take up headlines and airtime while Trump pulls a Saturday Night Massacre.  Does anyone seriously think Lindsey Graham will stand up to Trump?  Seriously?  Not one single member of the GOP congressional delegation, House or Senate, will stand up to Trump, particularly if there is any military action anywhere.

Remember, there is no chance of the GOP ever turning on Trump.  Ever, under any circumstances.  There never has been.

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

Mike Marshall & Chris Thile, "Shoulda Seen It Comin'," from Live Duets.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

James Comey's motives in 2016 (haven't I written about this before?)

When Comey announced the re-opened email "investigation" with less than two weeks to go before the 2016 election, I spent a series of posts puzzling over his motives.  Legally and procedurally, he made the wrong call.  DoJ rules stated that no public statements of that kind should be made that close to an election, and Comey violated the direct advice of DoJ higher-ups.  The Abedin/Weiner computer had nothing on it of any relevance, the announcement flipped the election to Trump over a bunch of bullshit, and now we're stuck with Trump.  It was the wrong call, and obviously so.

In his new book, Comey offers an interesting justification, which I hadn't considered in my 2016 analysis.  Comey says that he considered Clinton a lock for the 2016 election, so better to get it out before the election rather than have that linger with a post-election announcement.

So, Comey says he didn't think it would flip the election.  It is worth pointing out that, in my initial assessment of Comey's announcement, I didn't think it was likely to flip the election either.  So, can I blame Comey if he thought the same way?  I was wrong.  Maybe he was too.

A couple of points to consider.

First, if Comey thought that there were any circumstances in which Republicans would treat Clinton's election as legitimate, he was deluding himself.  They were chanting "lock her up" at the Republican convention, Trump had refused to say that he would accept the results of a Clinton victory, the party was still in its Benghazi-haze, and a bunch of them still think she murdered Vince Foster with her bare hands.

Pizzagate.  Pizzagate.  You can't reason with people like that.  You can't placate them, and there is no point trying.

That said, Comey may have thought that an open approach would avoid the appearance of illegitimacy, and thereby convey legitimacy.  Bullshit, because the Republicans will believe anything about Hillary Clinton, but he may have thought it.

So, should we buy that Comey was really thinking about this when he re-opened the "investigation" in October, and handed the White House to Trump?

Two main possibilities:

1)  I eventually decided that Comey's goal was to take down Clinton.  See, for example, this post.  Perhaps I was falling prey to the teleological fallacy.  Basically, that's when you assume that the outcome is the intent.

2)  People aren't always honest about their motives-- even with themselves.  Perhaps Comey is cozying up to Trump's enemies because of the position in which he now finds himself, and that requires telling a different story.

The teleological fallacy is real, and it may have infected my reasoning.  However, Comey's animosity towards Clinton was obvious, not just in his actions, but in how he spoke of her when he announced that she wouldn't be charged.  Dude just didn't like her.  Period.  His silence on Russia, and his advocacy for silence on Russia.  You have to look at the totality of his actions, and the totality of his actions throughout the 2016 election did not make it look like he just assumed Clinton would win and wanted to convey legitimacy.  If you care about legitimacy, you put the Russian interference out there.  Comey was blocking federal confirmation of Russian interference in 2016, even though the FBI had confirmed it.  Why?  See my previous post.

Did Comey just assume Clinton would win, and want to make sure everything looked on the level?  That's hard to square with the speech he gave when he announced that she wouldn't be charged, and even harder to square with blocking federal confirmation of Russian interference in 2016, even though the FBI had confirmed it.

Why is Comey saying what he now says?  I don't know.  Maybe I did commit the teleological fallacy, but I also think it is important to look at the totality of peoples' statements and actions.

When you look at everything James Comey did, remember that he didn't just go after Flynn, and he didn't just make that October, 2016 announcement.  He excoriated a presidential candidate while explaining that she couldn't be charged with any crimes.  That was... really weird.  He also stood in the way of the federal government confirming Russian election meddling in 2016.  During the election.

When Trump fired Comey, it was obstruction of justice.  He was trying to get the FBI to stop investigating Flynn and anything Russia-related.  Comey himself, though?  Don't make him out to be something he isn't, and remember to look at the totality of what he did.

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

Nashville West, "Mental Revenge," from their only album, sadly.  By the way, that's Clarence White on guitar.  Same guy as the bluegrass band, The Kentucky Colonels, and for a period of time, The Byrds!

Friday, April 13, 2018

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

Booker Ervin, "Grant's Stand," from The Freedom Book.

Who will replace Paul Ryan?

One of the lessons from yesterday's post was my little tale of... editorial discretion at The Monkey Cage.  Steve Scalise, the current third ranking Republican in the House said that he wouldn't challenge Kevin McCarthy if McCarthy runs.  So, McCarthy runs, and Scalise becomes...

I get to type it...

"The new Number 2."*

Right?  Well, not so fast.  When Boehner stepped down, McCarthy thought he had the votes, and it looked that way, but the Freedom Caucus wouldn't accept him.  We wound up with Paul Ryan because they did accept him.  So, will the Freedom Caucus now find McCarthy acceptable?  I'm not sold on that.  Scalise said that he wouldn't run against McCarthy, but if McCarthy backs out, Scalise is free to run.  The Freedom Caucus could even demand Mark Meadows or no one.  I wouldn't entirely put it past them.

For what it's worth, here's the PredictIt betting on the next Speaker.  They have Pelosi and Hoyer combined at 61 cents on the dollar, with McCarthy as the most likely Republican.  This just strikes me as odd.  McCarthy had to back out when Boehner got sacked because the Freedom Caucus wouldn't support him, and I'm not clear why they will support him now.  Have they beaten him into submission?  Has the Freedom Caucus gotten more realistic?  Or... is there more of a fight coming?

This could get ugly.

Then again, if the GOP loses the majority, it doesn't really matter.  Minority Leader is a rather less powerful position, so the stakes in the fight go way down.  McCarthy could just back out, let the wackos have control, and it wouldn't really matter.

Still, I'll remind everyone betting on McCarthy about what happened in 2015.  The Freedom Caucus still has effective veto power.

Of course, here's the betting on Ryan being there at year's end...

*Actually, Scalise once called himself David Duke without the baggage, so he has kind of always been number 2, right?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Paul Ryan's resignation


Nope.  I can't do it.  I can't even pretend to be shocked by this one.  As usual, The Onion has it about right.  Speaker of the House is supposed to be a great job.  It comes with a great deal of formal power, and with great power comes great annoyance.

Let's go back a few years and remember how Paul Ryan got the job that he never wanted.  Why?  Because, I wrote about it in a book that you'll be able to buy on Amazon in a couple of weeks.

The short version is that the 2010 election shifted the legislative agenda.  The combination of divided government and ideological polarization meant that no "normal" legislation could pass.  Any bill moving policy to the right would get vetoed (or wouldn't make it out of the Senate until after 2014) and any bill moving policy to the left wouldn't get out of the House.  So, gridlock.  However, the lights needed to be kept on.  Everybody was stuck trying to avoid "reversion" points, like government shutdowns and debt ceiling breaches, which the most extreme members of the House Republican caucus actually thought were kind of cool.  Consequently, the Speaker's job was to split the Republican caucus rather than unify it.  So, John Boehner had to keep pissing off the wackos in the Freedom Caucus, or face shutdowns (or worse yet, a debt ceiling breach).  Every time he did so, he pissed off the Freedom Caucus, but he didn't really have a choice.

John Boehner had the hardest job in American politics, and he was a fuckin' genius at it.  John Boehner was a great Speaker.  Period.

The problem is that holding onto the Speaker's gavel requires unity among the majority caucus, and losing the support of the Freedom Caucus (sorry, but the word "caucus" has multiple uses) meant that he didn't have that anymore.  Once that was gone, he stepped down.

Kevin McCarthy thought he had the votes to succeed Boehner.  Fun story about this.  When Boehner stepped down, I wrote a piece for The Monkey Cage about it, and as a side note, I warned about not presuming that McCarthy had the votes.  I was instructed to take that line out of the piece.  Editorial discretion.  Then, McCarthy was forced to withdraw after an informal vote count, leaving my Monkey Cage article with its monkey balls hanging out.  Not that I'm bitter about that...

Anyway, the House Republicans were in such disarray that the only person on whom they could agree was Ryan.  But... he knew the job was a mess.  He'd have to take the same votes as Boehner, and do the same things, so why take the job?  As a condition for saying yes, he made Boehner pass a CR and raise the debt ceiling through the 2016 election.  He was hoping for a GOP victory because continued divided government would put him in the same position all over again, in which case he'd be screwed.  Instead, he got Trumped.  At least he got a corporate tax cut out of the deal.

So, what's the deal now?

The job sucks.  Why?  Boehner called them, "the knuckleheads."  The Freedom Caucus.  The idiots who don't know when they've won.  Still, he is in a position of power, right?  Where else would he rather be?  Here's the problem.  It is a hard job, and getting harder.  The 2018 election is right around the corner, and midterm elections go against the party of the president, barring something very strange.  There is a relatively high likelihood of a Democratic takeover of the House.  How high?  Eh... hard to say at this point, but Trump's approval has been hovering around 40%, and the GOP House margin ain't great.  So, what are the possibilities?

1)  The GOP loses the House.  If that's true, Ryan just becomes a minority party legislator.  He could maybe stay leader, but... so what?  There's no real power in that, and he can't go back to chairing Ways & Means.

2)  The GOP retains the House, but with a slimmer margin.  This just makes a difficult job that much harder, and... Paulie isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.  Boehner really knew Congress, and how to do that job under the most difficult of circumstances.  Paul Ryan is a faker.  If he winds up with, say, a 10-seat majority with the Freedom Caucus badgering him at every turn, he won't know what to do.  He'd be way out of his depth.

3)  The GOP retains the House, but loses the Senate.  Divided government brought down Boehner, by my assessment.  Easier to quit while you're ahead.

At the end of the day, Ryan got his corporate tax cut.  What was he going to accomplish in 2019 or 2020?  Not much.  The rumors had been flying for a while.

Who's up next?  I don't know.  Better go wake up the gimp.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The political relevance of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data

Do you use Facebook?  You probably do because you aren't me.  That means the Trump campaign got data about you.  Hah!  Sorrynotsorry.

Anyway, today's topic is the use of Facebook's data for micro-targeted ads.  What can these accomplish?  Buried within this question are two separate questions.  First, what do we learn about you beyond your basic demographics, and second, can that knowledge be exploited?

Let's start with the first question.  If I know that you are African-American, how much do I know about your partisan preferences?  A lot.  Why, because around 90% of African-Americans are Democrats.  Tell me that you are African-American, and in particular, an African-American woman, and I can make a really really really good prediction about your vote choice.  In the 2016 American National Election Studies survey, 95% of African-American women went Clinton over Trump in the two-party vote.  Now, you are all individuals.

Fine, fine.  We are all individuals.  However, this is about baseline statistical probabilities, and the baseline statistical probability of an African-American woman voting for a Democrat is so high that the additional information on Facebook doesn't give you that much more.

I'm just talking about voting behavior.  As a person, what does Nora K. Jemisin have in common with Bettye Lavette?  No clue.  I've never met either.  I really really really want to meet both.  I would expect them to be very different people.  The way Jemisin writes, and the way Lavette sings, I doubt they have much in common.  But, I bet neither voted for Donny-boy.

White people?  White males?  Statistically, we are more likely to identify as Republicans, and vote Republican, but statistically, we are more divided than African-Americans.  According to the 2016 NES, white males favored Trump by about 60-40 in the two-party vote.

Um... what was I saying about statistical inferences and groups?  Uh...

I'm going to quote the great philosopher, Frank Zappa here:  "I'm not black, but there's a whole lotsa times I wish I could say I'm not white."

Regardless, there is an important statistical point here.  There is less politically relevant information conveyed by the fact that I am a white man than by the fact that Nora Jemisin is an African-American woman.  How much other basic information could be added to simple demographics to get my preferences correct, though?

I'm weird, for a lot of reasons, but this is the basic issue for Cambridge Analytica.  How much can you learn from personality-based information, above demographic baselines?  Basic political science will tend to get you a lot further than "big data" bullshit.

Second, what about micro-targeted ads?  Here's the basic fact that I beat into my students' heads, metaphorically, every time I teach about voting behavior.  90% or so of the electorate are partisans.  Forget that bullshit about how 30-40% are independents.  Those people are liars.  The basic political science method of asking about partisanship in a survey is to ask two questions rather than one.  If someone first claims to be an independent, you must then ask if that person leans towards one party or the other.  Most "independents" admit to a leaning, and most "leaners" act just like partisans, hence the line that so many of my students can recite:  "leaners are liars."  Can I trademark that?

Somewhere around 85-90% of votes in any given election are just partisans voting their party ID.  The rest have messages coming at them from all directions and incoherent preferences about politics.  The idea that they are susceptible to narrowly tailored messages relies on the idea that they have consistent and coherent preferences, and think in consistent ways about politics, but if they did that... they'd be partisans, and have their votes determined by partisanship, in which case, none of this Cambridge Analytica stuff would matter anyway.

Does the micro-targeting of ads influence outcomes?  I strongly doubt it.  James Comey?  Yeah, that motherfucker gave the White House to Trump.  Cambridge Analytica?  Nope.

So, here's the storyline.  Trump's campaign used Cambridge Analytica data from Facebook, and Trump won.  Therefore, he won because of micro-targeted ads.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.  Nope.  That's a logical fallacy.

Trump bragged about committing sexual assault and getting away with it.  Trump won.  Therefore, Trump won because he bragged about getting away with sexual assault.  Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Put shit on Facebook, and someone's going to get it.  Did it swing the 2016 election?  Not likely.  Privacy, though?  Yeah, that's an issue.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Lessons about Trump from the 2018 Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference

Yesterday's snark aside, I'm going to give you the real take-away from the 2018 MPSA conference about Trump.  Keep in mind that, um... I'm not exactly a social butterfly.  The title of the blog is fitting, after all.  Last Thursday morning, though, I had breakfast at the normal breakfast spot-- a cafe around the corner from the conference hotel, and bumped into a prominent scholar whom I will not name for reasons that will soon become obvious.  He observed to me that he wanted to take a survey of conference attendants regarding their vote choices from 2016.  He knew of precisely one political scientist who voted for Trump-- Jim Campbell (that one is public).  Academia does skew liberal and Democratic, but there are some Republicans and oddballs in academia in general, and political science specifically, but in 2016, even the Republicans mostly didn't vote for Trump, at least based on my direct knowledge and my Thursday breakfast discussion.  Moreover, the way in which we talk about the current President of the United States is... different.

Yes, every discussion eventually turned to Trump.  The world really does revolve around him.  The level of contempt that scholars have for him, though, is something that I haven't seen before.  I have been attending conferences since 2000-- the APSA conference held that year in Washington, DC.  I haven't seen or heard anything like this.

Discussions focused on questions of Trump's intelligence, questions of Trump's sanity, and questions of Trump's corruption by Russia specifically.  Regarding that last set of questions, there is no question, as far as I can tell, that Trump is corrupt, but simply whether or not there is corruption by a foreign power.  That remains an open question.

I have written a bunch of posts about whether or not Trump is "intelligent" (see, for example, here), but this is admittedly a difficult question because there are so many things that can cause a person with some cognitive capacity to behave in ways that don't demonstrate what we normally think of as "intelligent."  Among the conversations I had was whether or not he just has certain learning disabilities.  I am not convinced.  I think he's a fuckin' moron who has had everything handed to him because he was born rich, and if you are born rich and act like a supreme douchebag, you stay rich.  That's just the way it is.  However, this is the kind of thing I debated in the Palmer House lobby.  There was a qualitative difference between these conversations and those surrounding George W. Bush.  This was different.  Very different.  As in, we're scared because this guy is so fucked in the head.

Sanity.  This is what really got one of the Republicans at MPSA (I won't name names) to tell me he refused to vote.  His wife is a Democrat, and they have maintained their mixed marriage for decades, but this time... he just couldn't do it.  He couldn't give that kind of power to someone with mental problems.  Is Trump mentally fit for office?  Most of us who study American politics have some psychology training, but it is cognitive psychology, which means we aren't really fully qualified to make diagnoses, but then again, I'm not an ER doctor.  If I see someone dying on the street of a knife to the gut, I'm gonna make a diagnosis.  (Observe my current restraint regarding London...).  Trump is batshit crazy.  And we all know it.  Richard Nixon had a lot of psychological issues.  He was a Shakespearean figure-- brilliant, complex, and undone by his own paranoia.  Trump is... just scary insane.  He's a textbook sociopath, who may actually be so divorced from empirical reality that his constant untruth-telling isn't "lying," per se, because he doesn't even know what "truth" is.

Yes, this conversation happened with a bunch of people.  'Cuz we all know it.  The fact that we aren't all saying it LOUDLY is a disservice to the public.  This is what we were talking about at the conference.

Aaaand corruption.  Is Trump under the influence of Russia?  We still don't know.  We have sanctions against Russia, and counter-indications, but that could be Trump constrained by circumstances.  Manafort?  Flynn?  Those motherfuckers were in it deep.  Trump truly may have been too stupid and disconnected from any general strategy to collude personally, so his crimes may have been limited to obstruction of justice.  I'll leave it to lawyers to discuss what is necessary for convictions under general circumstances, even though I maintain that the probability of an impeachment is zero.  However, Trump's lawyer's office was just raided, probably having something to do with hush money payments to a porn star, and associated threats, although who the fuck knows, because those motherfuckers make Richard Nixon look like our collective mythos surrounding Elliot Fucking Ness.

Like I said, the corruption is not in doubt.  The challenge is how we talk about the President's possible corruption by Russia given the fact that even the possibility is such a norm violation that we are beyond normal politics.  One of the denizens of the Palmer House lobby had no idea how to address this, and so chooses to remain silent.  That's the wrong thing to do, but this is the problem of the Trump era.  The corruption is not in doubt-- just the severity.

If you want to understand what political scientists really think of Donald Trump, HOLY FUCKING SHIT, we hate that motherfucker!  I am particularly profane about it here, but... this is different from other politicians.  The MPSA conference, and in particular, the Palmer House lobby, would have been a fascinating fly-on-the-wall experience to an outsider.

Which brings me to someone who was obviously a tourist in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There was a family.  They each had a book.  The mother?  A Bill O'Reilly book.  She was sitting in the lobby with her family, she looked around, saw the name tags, the program books, and realized what was happening.  I wonder what she thought as she undoubtedly listened in.  I tried listening because I'm an eavesdropper... I didn't catch anything.  Too bad...

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

Radim Zenkl, "Across the Stormy Sea," from Strings & Wings.  Guest:  David Balakrishnan on violin.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Something different (trust me): An exhibition of my photography of Chicago architecture

Posts have been particularly brief for the last several days, and there is generally a reason when that happens.  I was at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, in Chicago.*  Great city.  Chicago is known for many things, including its architecture.  Just walk around the city, and look up.  You will see something interesting.  When I walked out of my hotel lobby and looked up, I saw this.  It was so interesting that I thought I needed to take a photograph, so here it is, in all its splendor.

Now, please understand that photography is not truly my art.  I am a musician, if I have an art.  Really, though, I was attempting to capture what may or may not have been a paranormal phenomenon.  Do... do you see... an extended middle finger floating in front of that bigly building?  It was the strangest thing.  Every time I looked at it, I saw an extended middle finger.  I looked away, and the middle finger disappeared from my field of vision.  OK, here's where it gets really weird.  I covered up the top portion of the lowest building segment with a hand-- either hand-- and the middle finger went away!  It was a phantom middle finger, blinking in and out of existence.  I tried to snap a photo of it, just to convince myself that I wasn't going crazy, but... you see it, right?  There really is a middle finger there, right?

I asked some passers-by to look at that building, and determine whether or not they could see an extended middle finger floating in front of it, and to make matters stranger still, some could see it, and some couldn't.  It's like that "what color is the dress" thing.  Or maybe "middle finger blindness."  As a statistically-minded empiricist, though, I couldn't help but notice some empirical patterns.  African-Americans and Latinos were more likely than whites to see extended middle fingers, and women were slightly more likely than men to see extended middle fingers, but the pattern wasn't as clear.  Now, men are more likely to be color-blind than women, but I know of no such phenomenon on race, which has an ambiguous-at-best biological basis anyway.

So, is there or is there not an extended middle finger floating in front of this building?  This requires investigation.  Is the phantom middle finger a phenomenon unique to the Trump building in Chicago, or do its bizarre properties operate at other locations?  What about in other countries?  Do the patterns for who does and does not see the middle finger vary by location?  By country?  A very lovely British-sounding couple swore to me that they could see two fingers.  These are important questions, amenable to serious investigation.

After all, we've already done the research on that voter fraud stuff, so why the fuck not?

*Typing on my iPad sucks.

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

For no reason in particular, here's Blind Willie Johnson's "If I Had My Way, I'd Tear The Building Down."

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Watching congressional resignations

Blake Farenthold is resigning from Congress.

Yay!  Farenthold is... a special kind of guy.  He's the shitbag who paid off the women with federal money.  Why is he resigning?  Because it's so bad for him that he'd just lose.  Reference time!  Gary Jacobson & Samuel Kernell's Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections.  If you think you are going to lose, just quit.  It's easier.  He is also probably being pushed out.  Then, there's John McCain.  Health problems.  Will he quit?  Maaaaaybe...

A lot of Republicans are up and quitting.  Why?  Plenty of ideosyncratic reasons, but from the Democratic perspective, that doesn't matter.  What matters is that open seats are easier to win than incumbent-held seats.  Usually.  Farenthold's resignation might make it harder for the Dems to take that one, and it's a GOP district anyway, so if I were them, I wouldn't get my hopes up about that one, but the pattern is important.  Here's the current list, or nearly current.  As I write, Farenthold's name isn't on it yet.  There's still a GOP leaning.  That's the point for this morning.  It's important.  Lots of GOP resignations.  Whether they suspect a bad year for the Republican Party, or just bad years for themselves, the effect is the same, in aggregate.

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

Billy Strings & Don Julin, "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," from Fiddle Tune X.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Political science lesson from Trump's trade war

Nothing good comes from a trade war.  Well, almost nothing.  Are you paying attention to the insanity of the stock market?  Investors are... nuts.  They vacillate between deciding that the bull run is over because of this idiotic trade war Trump wants to start, and being reassured that Trump is just bullshitting, like usual.

What will most pundits tell you about politics generally and the Republican Party specifically, though?  That they are controlled by the monied class.  Best Congress money can buy, and all that shit.  Now, statistically, when wealthy people have consistent opinions, they tend to get their way.  Good book:  Martin Gilens's Affluence and Influence.  I can argue with pieces of it, but it's a good book.  Do "wealthy" people oppose the trade war?  I... don't know.

I do know that investors oppose it.  Watch the fuckin' market.  The business world opposes it.  If they could buy Congress off to take away Trump's authority, they would, but Republicans in Congress aren't controlled by money.  They are cowed by Trump.  Hence my observations in earlier posts.

Money doesn't buy policy.  We knew this in political science long ago.  This is just a demonstration.  A frustrating and stupid demonstration, but a demonstration nonetheless.

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

Not strictly country, but it will work for today.  Ry Cooder, "Taxes On The Farmer Feeds Us All," from Into the Purple Valley.

Friday, April 6, 2018

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

Sun Ra, "Overtones of China," from Sound of Joy.

Republicans, taxes and trade

I have written repeatedly lately about the issues raised by Trump's tariffs.  Not the economic impact.  Read an economist for that.  I am fascinated by the politics, of course.  The Republican Party-- ostensibly the party of commerce and low taxes-- is standing idly by as its leader starts a trade war through tariffs, which are taxes.  What does this say?  A lot.

Along those lines, this story caught my eye.  Those poor congressional Republicans.  They'd like to do something because they hate tariffs.  They like commerce and low taxes, don'cha'know.  If only there were something they could do!

There is.  The power to tax is given, not to the president, but to Congress.  Trump is currently exploiting power given to him by... Congress, and Congress can take it back.  Yes, Trump could veto a bill, which would require a congressional override, but a) if Republicans really cared about deregulation, open commerce and low taxes, they'd vote to take away Trump's authority to pull this shit, and b) Democrats would mostly go along with it just to stick it to Trump.

So, what's the hold-up?  As the article says, Republicans don't want to get into a public fight with their own President.  In other words, they are backing down.  Again.  Like they always do in the face of whatever Trump does.  Like they always will.

Soon, I am going to have to confront my past wrongness comparing Trump to Carter.  Congressional opposition, within one's own party, used to be a thing, and it wasn't just about lack of polarization.  More is going on here.  More to come soon.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Trade deficits and keeping score

The trade war is slowly escalating, and while it may not get completely out of control, trade wars are not "good," and they are not "easy to win."  The President is just a moron.  This has me thinking, though, about the concept of trade deficits.

As a mathematical concept, we can add or subtract anything.  In chess, I can put point values on every piece, and keep score.  At the end of the day, though, it's about checkmate.  (Or stalemate, or time running out, if you play with a clock).  A bishop is "worth" three points.  So is a knight.  A rook is "worth" five.  If I trade a rook for a bishop, losing two points, and consequently checkmate you, you still lose.

But of course, trade isn't zero-sum, which is exactly where Trump goes wrong, as anyone who has studied economics in the last two centuries already knows.  So, what's with this score thing?

We calculate "gross domestic product" by adding consumer spending, investment, government spending and net exports.  If we have a trade deficit, that gets calculated into GDP as a reduction.  OK, so is that bad?  It lowers the number.  Why is that the number that matters?  Um...

We actually look at a lot of numbers to measure the economy.  Unemployment, inflation, disposable income...  What does the trade deficit have to do with that stuff?  Less.  Some, but less.  That's not my real point today, though.

The flip side of a trade deficit, though, is a goods deficit for other countries.  We're getting their stuff, and they're getting promissory notes that are worth, um... some imaginary thing.  This is kind of like the arbitrary negative sign we assign to an electron.  Why is that the negative charge?  (Long story).

So, um, we trade with other countries in a way that means we get more of their stuff.  Personally, I like stuff.   I am typing this stuff on "stuff" right now, and it wasn't made in the US.  Right now, the US is running a stuff surplus.  That's the flip side of a trade deficit.  They are mathematically equivalent.

Now, there's some bullshit here (more than "some"), and I may go into more on this because there are economic consequences to trade deficits.  They are just minor, and Trump doesn't understand them.  However, Trump only cares about keeping score and winning.  Put this way, Trump would think we are winning.

And he wouldn't start this stupid, fucking trade war.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Paul Krugman invokes a famous fallacy

Paul Krugman is an economist.  He is not a political scientist.  Mostly, though, economists manage to avoid making certain mathematical mistakes.  Yesterday, Krugman made a doozy, and it is a famous one in political science.

Here is yesterday's column.  I recommend that everyone read Krugman and John Cochrane, to get a sense of the competing views floating around, and while one can take issue with things Krugman says, he usually isn't this careless.  The gist of his argument, when he gets around to it, is that the downtrodden in states like Mississippi are tricked into voting against their economic interests.  He even mentions... Kansas!  This brings us back to a famous book, to which I will not link:  What's the Matter with Kansas?  (Hey, that title... sounds familiar...)  The argument was that voters in states like Kansas are duped into voting against their self-interest through the use of social issues.

Here's the problem.  It was total bullshit, and it was based on a mathematical error called "ecological inference."  That's some statistical jargon.  It is the term we use for looking at aggregate-level patterns, and trying to infer individual-level behavior.  States that are poorer tend to vote Republican.  Does that mean poor people vote Republican?  No.  That was the hole in the reasoning.

We've known about the "ecological inference problem" for a long time, and Andrew Gelman saw this shit, and wrote Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State to debunk the shit out of this nonsense.  Here's the executive summary.  In rich states, like Connecticut, wealth and partisanship are unrelated.  In poor states, like Mississippi, they are related, and in the expected direction.  Wealthier people are more Republican within the state, but the state itself is shifted more GOP.  So, basically, there is no puzzle to resolve.  You just have to look at individual survey data rather than state-level election results.

The thing is, "ecological inference" is a known thing.  Krugman should recognize an ecological inference claim when he sees it, even if he shouldn't be expected to have read Gelman.

Ecological inference is off-limits.  Journalists?  OK, they don't get stats training.  What's Krugman's excuse?

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Trade wars and ideology

Ideology changes over time.  What are liberalism and conservatism?  They are... bundles of policy positions.  To be an ideologue is a slur, in some circles, but in political science terms, it means having connections between one's policy positions.  "Constraints," in the terminology of Philip Converse.

Of course, not all constraints are "logical."  If I asked you to create a logical rule to produce either the bundle of policies that now define liberalism or conservatism, you couldn't do it.  Conservatives will insist that their defining principle is "small government," or "individual liberty," or something like that, but such platitudes fall apart when you bring up issues like gay marriage or drug legalization.  Since ideologies are not defined by logical constraints, though, the bundles of policies included in either ideology can change.  Who changes them?

Intense policy demanders and coalition merchants, to use terminology from Hans Noel's Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America.  Socio-political log-rolls.  What does abortion have to do with tax policy?  Not a fuckin' thing, except that abortion rights advocates attached themselves to the redistribution side, and the pro-life side attached itself to the supply-siders under Reagan.  Voila!  Ideology created!  It's a more complicated process than that, but you get the gist.

So... trade.  This has been a tricky one for a while.  It hasn't fully lined up with liberalism or conservatism in the public sphere, being a very low-salience issue.  NAFTA and the TPP cut across traditional lines because you can find free-traders and restrictionists on each side.  Chamber of Commerce-types like free trade agreements, but paleo-conservative isolationists have always had strains of mercantilism running through their blood.  On the left, unions sometimes get twitchy about trade, while DLC-types are more open.  Trade policy just never really became a left-right issue.

Trump, of course, isn't just an isolationist.  He's pro-tariff.  That puts him in an odd position relative to his party.  He doesn't just want to burn trade agreements.  He wants to do it by raising taxes.  Which he has done.  And now we're in a trade war.  China has retaliated.  This thing is really happening.

So, what's going on in the GOP?  Hello, Grover Norquist, where are you?  Remember, he's the guy who has Republicans sign pledges that they will never, on pain of death of puppy, raise taxes.  He's been, strangely brought to heel.

There's a basic empirical observation here.  The leader of conservatism-- the man who currently defines conservatism through his actions and cult-like control of every member of the Republican Party at the elite level-- has not only ended the fight between the trade advocates and isolationists in the party, for now at least.  He has done so by RAISING FUCKING TAXES.

I've been periodically picking on the Grossman & Hopkins argument for a while now, going back to February of 2016.  They have a rather prominent argument that the GOP is more extreme than the Democratic Party, basically because the base is more ideological, and they want purity, whereas the Democrats are a coalition of interest groups.  The problem is that the GOP nominated the most impure candidate they could find, and he keeps doing impure things.

Like raising taxes.  And nobody in the party is saying shit about it, except in the most mild, anodyne and ineffectual ways.

I repeat:  A Republican President started a trade war, and he did it by raising taxes.  What does this portend for the future of liberalism and conservatism?

Who the fuck knows?  I don't even know what this portends for next week at this point.  Trump could wind up firing John Bolton after he offers Ivanka a free mustache ride, and it wouldn't surprise me.

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

Have you ever listened to the Chinese lute, or, pipa?  Here is pipa master, Wu Man, along with English guitar virtuoso, Martin Simpson, playing "The Coo Coo Bird."  The album is Music for the Motherless Child.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Policy expertise, protests and Parkland

Time for another piss-people-off-and-scare-away-readers post.  If I had any money staked on this thing, I wouldn't be able to post this kind of stuff, as I have noted before, and if you think about it with any rigor, that's kind of a problem.

One of the interesting pieces of backlash to the "March for Innumeracy Our Lives" on the conservative side has been to question the credentials of the protesters on the basis of their lack of knowledge.  I'm going to poke at that.  Not in a Ted Nugent kind of way-- he kind of had a thing for poking at underage children, but in a more intellectual way.  Fuck you, Ted.

You ever notice how people in public life nicknamed, "Ted," wind up being shitbags?  Cruz?  Shitbag.  Nugent?  Child-molesting shitbag.  Kennedy?  Murdered a woman in a drunk-driving accident, and got away with it because of his last name.  Shitbag.  Roosevelt?  Racist shitbag.

Caffeine hasn't kicked in yet.  Sidetrack.

Anyway, there is a bar that needs to be cleared before I bother listening to/reading what a policy advocate has to say.  The bar, for me, is rather high on pretty much any political or economic subject.

On September 11, 2001, four planes were hijacked by al Qaeda terrorists.  Two hit the World Trade Center towers, bringing them down.  The mayor of New York City, at the time, was Rudy Giuliani.  In the response, Giuliani managed not to shit his pants.  He appeared on camera in a relatively calm and composed manner, directed responses, and did his job about as well as one could do.  The Police Commissioner, at the time, was Bernard Kerik.  Like Giuliani, he handled the stress about as well as one could.

Did the experience provide either man with any deep insight into the global political or military challenges of addressing terrorism?  No.  To claim so would be stupid.  Both did.  Giuliani became kind of a laughing stock for his attempts, thanks to Joe Biden's greatest line:  every Rudy Giuliani sentence has three elements-- a noun, a verb and 9/11.  Military strategy and addressing terrorism are complicated problems, and being on the ground in Manhattan on 9/11 provides no intrinsic knowledge to how to handle these challenges.  Anyone who claims otherwise should be ridiculed.

What is the most effective way to reduce crime?  What is the most effective way to reduce violent crime?  What is the most effective way to secure schools?

Does being at the site of an attack provide intrinsic knowledge answering these complicated policy questions?

And of course, to anyone who says that the answer is "common sense," I reject any fallback on the phrase, "common sense."  In all circumstances, and all policy issues.

There is no policy issue on which I accept "common sense" as a valid argument.  It isn't an argument.  It is a refusal to make an argument.  Policy is hard, and nobody gets a free pass to avoid having to make a logical argument.  Bomb the shit out of the Middle East seemed like a simple, "common sense" response to 9/11 and terrorism more generally to a lot of people.  That doesn't make it smart, or sound policy.

So, what knowledge do people need before I bother to give them a hearing on guns and gun control?

1)  They need to demonstrate an understanding of "elasticity of demand."  This is a vital concept from economics.  When you ban a product, either outright or simply try to prohibit sales to certain people, you don't make it go away.  You shift sales to the black market.  That increases the risk of economic transactions, shifting the supply curve to the left.  That pushes prices up.  How much does that reduce consumption?  It depends on the "elasticity of demand."  If demand is inelastic, an increase in price associated with a shift to the black market doesn't reduce consumption.  Reducing consumption through policy requires elastic demand.  In order to get a hearing from me, you need to demonstrate an understanding of the concept of elasticity of demand, how it applies to the case at hand, how it can vary across countries (this matters a lot, since the left loves to talk about Australia), etc.  If I don't think advocates have a firm grasp on demand elasticity and how it applies, I don't care what they have to say about guns and gun control.  Protest all you want.  First amendment.  Engaging in a serious policy discussion, though, requires more knowledge than such people have, though.

2)  They need to demonstrate an understanding of magnitude.  How many people are shot in a year?  How does that compare to other causes of death?  How many can you reasonably expect to stop, and based on what do you make this assessment?  If policy advocates aren't even trying to put things on the proper scale, then they don't deserve my attention.  How many people were killed in the Benghazi attack?  Four.  How big a deal was that?  People DIED!!!!!!!!!!!!  Death.  Yup.  Big deal.  What was the scale, though?  The fact that four is a small number, put on the proper scale, made the right look batshit crazy for obsessing over it.  What is the proper scale for assessing things like "mass shootings?"  If, as I observed recently, young people are more at risk, statistically, of dying of heart disease than mass shootings despite the fact that heart disease is supposed to be an issue for the elderly, anyone who doesn't understand this is missing the point.  Getting a hearing from me requires demonstrating knowledge of the scale.

3)  They need to not respond to shootings by proposing bills that are unrelated.  That's just crass.  Think back.  How familiar is the following:  A shooting occurs.  The shooter would have passed a background check, or acquired the gun from a family member or something like that, making liberals' favorite proposal completely irrelevant to the case at hand, and yet liberals try to use the event as an excuse to pass the bill because of the old politician's fallacy:  "Something must be done.  This is something, therefore it must be done."  And don't give me any of this "there were warning signs" crap.  Warning signs are different from justiciable, actionable grounds that would prevent a legal sale through a background check.  If advocates are pushing for background checks, and then using a shooter who either did or could have passed a background check to justify their case, they have lost all logical footing, and don't deserve my attention.

4)  If they are pushing for any type of product ban, they need to demonstrate some understanding of how many of such products exist already.  They don't go away.  They need to demonstrate some historical understanding of what happens when federal agents try to confiscate guns in this country, rather than, oh, say, Australia.  What happens is Ruby Ridge.  If they don't understand that history, they don't deserve my attention.  They need to understand how easy small-scale manufacturing is with CNC machining.  The need to demonstrate an understanding of how easily modifiable guns are, so that modular components can be produced with small-scale CNC machining.  Yes, if you are going to talk about gun policy, you need to understand the guns themselves.  Otherwise, you won't understand how easy it will be to get around the policies under consideration with engineering and CNC machining.

5)  Anyone who ever uses the phrase, "common sense," loses the right to a hearing from me.

These are a few of the most important hurdles someone has to clear before I give them a hearing on guns and gun control.  As a general rule, I prefer to listen to policy experts.  First amendment?  Say whatever you want.  The first amendment is great.  I just have no interest in listening unless I think someone has something to say that is a) insightful and b) that I haven't heard before.

What I have not done is dismiss protesters for being kids.  Statistically, a kid is unlikely to have an argument I haven't heard before, but argument by authority is bullshit.  I won't dismiss anyone for not having a Ph.D.  Same thing.  Argument by authority.

There is so much bullshit here, though, and it follows patterns that liberals used to criticize.

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

Eden Brent, "Everybody Already Knows," from Jigsaw Heart.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

A lesson in economics: why Amazon takes over everything

Spoiler alert:  Donald Trump is a liar.  The reason he hates Amazon is not that Bezos is scamming the Post Office, putting small businesses out of business, or anything like that.  He hates the fact that the Washington Post gives him unfavorable coverage, and Jeff Bezos owns both Amazon and the WaPo.

Amazon is an oddity, though.  Aside from this usage, I refuse to type the word, "disruptor."  After this post, I'm going to wash my hands.  I promise.

In conventional economic thinking, we tend to like "competitive" markets.  What is a perfectly competitive market, in basic economics?  It has the following characteristics:

1)  Many buyers
2)  Many sellers
3)  Perfect information
4)  Indistinguishable products
5)  Low entry barriers for new firms

When those conditions are met, you get an equilibrium quantity of goods sold at an equilibrium price determined by the intersection of the supply and demand curves.  Ringing any bells?  Note the second condition for a perfectly competitive market.  We don't tend to like markets with a small number of sellers.  Or just one.  If you have just one seller, you have a monopoly.  Just a few, and you have an oligopoly.  As long as entry barriers are low, even an oligopoly can be OK because the threat of entry from new firms can keep prices low, but the real problem with oligopolies is the threat of "price-fixing."  Let's say you have a market with just two firms, and high entry barriers, so nobody new can jump in the market and start competing.  What if each firm agrees to start jacking up the prices?  A little bit of business floats away because some customers stop participating in the market, but as long as each firm raises their prices by the same amount, they each retain the same market share and get to charge a higher price.  Yeah, consumers get fucked, but the price-fixing businesses make more money, so good on them, right?

This is, um... illegal.  It is also hard to arrange because not only is it illegal, each firm has an incentive to screw the other by either not raising prices and trying to take over the market with the lowest prices, or just undercutting the other firm by a little bit to get a similar effect.  Price-fixing agreements are hard to maintain.  You know what makes them hardest?  More firms in the market.  They get easier to arrange the fewer firms there are.  That's the point about Condition 2.  More firms means more competition, and consumers get lower prices.

Except when they don't.  Hi, Jeff!  What's on sale today, you devious bastard?

The glitch is a little thing called an "economy of scale."  Sometimes, the bigger a firm is, the lower its cost of production or operation on a per-unit basis.  This has been a major issue in agriculture, in which automation allows the major agricultural businesses to produce produce at a lower cost per unit than small farmers, but it works for online retail too.

Amazon's business model gives them lower costs of operation than normal brick-and-mortar stores.  They have so much information that their ads and sales are better targeted.  (Just think for a moment about how frequently you get creeped out by their prescience).  The Post Office issue that Trump raises is one of bulk sales, and Trump's dishonesty/ignorance is that Amazon's deal isn't unique.  Anyone doing bulk sales gets those rates as opposed to, say, an Etsy person trying to work outside of Amazon or eBay.  Then, there's Amazon's ability to do something like Prime.  You can't do that until you get big(ly).

Amazon's size allows it to charge lower prices per unit, when smaller and more conventional retailers need to charge higher prices.  That is an "economy of scale," and when those occur, they mess with our conventional models of economics.  We, the consumers, get lower prices, but a bunch of businesses go out of business.  There is a risk if enough competition gets put out of business that Amazon winds up unthreatened.  If there comes a point at which Amazon can start to raise prices because of that lack of existing competition and entry barriers, that's the problem.

We aren't there.  There are economic risks to something like Amazon, but there are benefits.  If you hate going out shopping (I do), are a cheapskate (I am), and know how to hit "delete" on advertisement emails, then as long as you aren't employed in retail or heavily invested in retail, the concerns right now are data privacy and the uncertain future of economic competition.

Of course, that data privacy thing is a real concern.

Those aren't Trump's concerns, though.  Obviously.