Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A reminder on "the issue attention cycle"

Anthony Downs.  Smart guy.  He is generally remembered primarily as the founder of "spatial theory" in political science, and most of what I have been doing for the last bunch-o'-years owes heavily to An Economic Theory of Democracy.

Unjustly ignored, though, is the fact that Downs first pointed out the "issue attention cycle."  Here.  It's a quick read, but a good one, and I implicitly reference it enough.

First, there is a "pre-problem" stage, at which people don't really talk about an issue.  Then, the discovery stage, caused by dramatic events.  Next, discussion of the costs of action.  Interest then wanes because of those costs, the difficulty, competing social pressures, etc., and finally, at the "post-problem" stage, attention moves on to something else.  Often, another event draws attention to another problem, and round-and-round-we-go.

Smart guy, Tony.  Not every issue goes through the cycle, but the issues that do are generally the ones that draw attention through some precipitating event.  Like, for example, gun control, through "mass shootings."

No, this time isn't different.

Every issue has a core of people devoted to the cause, but that's not most people.  Most people are only marginally interested in politics at most.  If you are reading this... you're weird.

I'm weirder because I'm writing this, but whatever.  The point is that no matter what you think is happening to society at the broader level, there is never more than a tiny core of people devoted to any one cause.  The rest move on in the Downsian issue attention...

Hey!  What's that?

And did you see that?  I got to write, "Downsian," and not have it be about spatial models!  I know, that doesn't mean anything to you, but it means something to me!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Diane Feinstein

Well, this is weird.  Because of the procedure involved, the California Democratic Party did not officially endorse Diane Feinstein for renomination for her Senate seat.  How big a deal is this?  Eh...  Keep in mind that many states have formal rules against party endorsements in the primaries, so not a huge one, but it is kind of a deal.  Current offer on Feinstein's reelection on PredictIt is 69 cents on the dollar.  That strikes me as low, but stranger things have happened.  A Feinstein retirement seems more likely to me than a defeat, but a few reminders are in order.

First, California has a batshit crazy electoral system.  Not quite as nuts-o as Louisiana, because nobody is that crazy, but close.  California has everyone face everyone else in a primary.  The top two vote-getters face each other in the general election, even if they are of the same party.  Yeah, fucked up, right?  The Louisiana twist is that they call off the general election if someone gets over 50% in the primary because nobody out-crazies Ophelia Louisiana.  ("Out-crazies"-- is that the proper conjugation when using "crazy" as a verb?  The "--ies" suffix is for the pluralization.  Should I chastise myself for verbing a noun?  The spell-checker in the blog's text editor didn't even like "verbing...")

Anyway, this is a weird rule.  Feinstein is facing someone who is... kind of a chump.  Kevin de Leon is trying to mount a lefty challenge to Feinstein, who is a relative moderate.  On our DW-NOMINATE scale, developed by Poole and Rosenthal, she's at -.265 on the -1 to +1 scale.  That puts her to the right of the Democratic median, but she isn't exactly the Democrats' version of Susan Collins.  She's still to the left of Angus King and Joe Donnelly and Amy Klobuchar and Chris Coons and Jon Tester and Joe Manchin and Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Heidi Heitkamp and Claire McCaskill and Gary Peters and Tom Carper and Michael Bennet.

So, yeah.  By all means, you fuckin' lefties.  Purge DiFi.  She's your enemy.

California is an odd state, though.  A Republican can't beat a Democrat statewide, without odd circumstances (like the recall of Gray Davis, which elected the Governator), and... incumbents win.  Here's where we factor in the electoral rule, though.  One of two things happens.  Either DiFi winds up running against some sacrificial lamb Republican and beats him to a bloody pulp because it's California in a midterm election with Trump as President, or de Leon makes it to the "general" election.

Now, what's the "theory," such as it is, behind the top-two model that California now uses?  The idea is to reduce polarization.  If primary voters just vote for the most wacko candidate, then you wind up with general elections consisting of a moonbat versus a wingnut, and either way, the winner is a wacko.  If, on the other hand, you can have a run-off within a party, there might be some centrist pressure.

What if that worked?  Hint:  it doesn't, generally speaking, but what if it did?

In the primary, you've got Republicans voting for a Republican, and Democrats dividing their votes between DiFi and de Leon.  Either DiFi winds up in a general against a Republican and crushes him, or de Leon gets more votes than the highest vote-getting Republican.  Those Republicans, in the general election, then have a choice between the comparatively centrist DiFi, and de Leon.  Whom do they pick?  Probably DiFi.

Feinstein wins.  Either way.

The safest bet is still Feinstein.  If she doesn't crush de Leon in the "primary," the Republicans who face a "general" election between Feinstein and de Leon will pick her over the lefty.

We've seen this before.  When Joe Lieberman lost his primary to Ned Lamont in 2006, he decided to run as an "independent," and the Republicans voted for him because the choice was him or Lamont.

It is hard for me to see how Feinstein loses.

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

There's fun in Italian elections too these days!  Here's Beppe Gambetta's "A Night In Frontenac," from Blu Di Genova.  Beppe is sort of a bluegrass musician, but clearly a European one.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Meanwhile on the Russian Front...

While American politics have been focused on the Parkland shootings, a lot has happened.  Some of which, Americans find uninteresting, like the easily preventable deaths of, oh, roughly 100,000 people around the world from waterborne pathogens, but today is not the day for that rant again.

No, let's deal with Russia.  In addition to the irrelevant Democratic response to the "Nunes abstract philosophy memo," we've got a bunch of new charges and indictments.  And fun for political scientists and economists alike over at PredictIt!  Yup, we've got betting on who will get charged, convicted or pardoned.  Some of this is clearly nuts.  39 cents on the dollar for Trump to be impeached in his first term?  No.  Just... no.  If you want to throw your money away, then go for it.  Even if the Democrats take the House, they aren't going to impeach him.  They'll count the votes in the Senate, decide that it isn't worth going through the rigamarole to fail to convict, and they won't do it.  More on that shortly.

Then, you've got the interesting stuff, like the betting on Manafort and Gates, who are facing new charges.  68 cents on the dollar for Manafort to be convicted by the end of the year, and 18 cents on the dollar for him to be pardoned.  I gotta say, that seems low to me.  If he looks like he's flipping on Trump, Trump has to pardon him.  Would you trust Manafort to keep his pie hole shut?

Here's the problem with many of these predictions, though.  We are making guesses with little to no information.  Mueller, unlike Trump, runs a tight ship.  We find out what he has, only in limited amounts when he announces indictments.

How, then, can I say with such certainty that Trump won't be impeached?

Are you paying attention to that little shit, Nunes, or CPAC, or how the Republican Party responds to any of this?  Trump cannot be removed from office without consent from at least some members of the GOP because conviction in the Senate requires a 2/3 supermajority.  Even if the Democrats get a House majority in 2018, there is no point impeaching a president who can't be convicted.

Not one Senate Republican would ever agree to that.

Not.  One.

Zero.

There would be zero votes from the Republican Party to convict Trump, no matter what Mueller finds.  Not from McCain, not from Collins, not from Murkowski, not from Corker, not from Flake...  Remember that Corker is considering un-retiring, after cozying up to Trump.  This, after all of the noise he made about Trump debasing the nation, the White House being adult day care, and so forth.

Not.  One.  Vote.

We call this technique, "backwards induction," in game theory.  Probability of conviction in the Senate will always be zero.  Knowing that the Senate won't convict Trump, even if the Democrats take the House in 2018, an impeachment would be embarrassing and costly to the Democrats.  Hence, they wouldn't do it.

Trump will not be impeached.  Period.

What, then, do we take from Mueller's latest news?  I'm not sure.  It all depends on who is willing to stay silent for Trump.  Either people stay silent and do their time for him, or they flip on him, and if he is worried about the latter... pardons are on the way!  Why bother, though, if he won't be impeached?  He hates embarrassment.

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

Albert Collins, "Master Charge," from Ice Pickin'.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ideological media cocoons

I'm going somewhere with this.

I am, on occasion, asked about my media diet.  I am a grazer.  Since Congress is my primary professional area of expertise, I read Roll Call regularly, and I check RealClearPolitics every morning, which gives me the latest polls, and lets me click over to a selection of the big items for the day.  I am an email subscriber to the Hotline.  I have to see how the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal at least present the news of the day, and it is useful to compare the front pages of Fox, CNN and MSNBC as points of reference because others look at them, even though they suck.  Beyond that, The Monkey Cage is a must-read for any political scientist, as is Crooked Timber for any general scholar, a smattering of business news, and a general attempt to see how various perspectives cover politics.  There's more, but I'm being brief.  I spend a lot of my time grazing.  (Mmmmm.... cud.)  One of the general pieces of advice I give is that everyone should read both Paul Krugman and John Cochrane's blogs.  Don't exist within an ideological cocoon.

The problems with ideological cocoons are as follows.  First, all you do is reinforce your existing beliefs.  You never question your own assumptions.  That's...  baaaaad.  If you never change your mind about anything, it means you aren't thinking.  Scholarly reference to that book I always mention:  John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion.  If you only expose yourself to messages consistent with your existing beliefs, everything just gets reinforced.  Don't do that.

There is information you will miss.  One of the important observations in the sequence of National Election Studies surveys is as follows.  Consider the 2004 and 2012 surveys.  Why these surveys?  Because economically, they were relatively similar.  Economic growth, but not spectacular growth.  If you were a Democrat in 2004, you underrated the economy in 2004.  Why?  Republican president.  If you were a Republican in 2012, you underrated the economy in 2012.  Why?  Democratic president.

You know what contributes to this?  Lack of information.  If you were watching Fox in 2012, they weren't covering the economy in a... fact-based manner, and in 2004, if you were getting your news from MSNBC or some other lefty news source, ditto.  On the second part, they were more likely to avoid the topic than outright lie the way Fox does, but the effect is similar.  You wind up misinformed.

Then there is the issue of understanding how others think.  Will you get a better sense of how conservatives think about economics by reading John Cochrane's blog, or by reading Paul Krugman's description of how conservative's think?  Will you get a better sense of how liberals think about economics by reading Paul Krugman, or by reading John Cochrane's description of Paul Krugman?

Consider the following gem of idiocy from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse:  "Trump is in the back pocket of billionaires."

Trump is a billionaire!  He isn't nearly as rich as he says he is, but... he is a billionaire!  Whitehouse (yes, that's his name) is falling prey to a variation on the very fallacy I pointed out in last Tuesday's post-- attributing opposition to corruption because it is easier than just accepting that someone disagrees with you.  Trump is a self-enriching billionaire.  He doesn't give a shit about anyone else because he's a sociopath, and that's the definition of a sociopath.  He isn't in anyone's "back pocket," except maybe Putin.  OK, Putin is probably effectively a billionaire, but that isn't what Whitehouse was saying.  Whitehouse was rejecting the notion of sincerity.  Trump is sincere.  Sincerely self-interested.

People disagree with you, and if you want to understand politics, you need to understand why, and not simply attribute any and every disagreement to someone being bought off.  Don't just pull that "it's common sense" crap.  Like I wrote last week, appeals to "common sense" are bullshit.

So, you need to challenge your assumptions, get a broader array of information, and understand why people hold positions different from those that you hold.  That requires not cocooning yourself within a comfortable, little ideological media bubble.

But they're sooooo comfy!  For a little while now, I've been posting on the politics of gun control.  So much of this blog, to a casual observer, might look like just an extra-snarky version of a standard-issue, Trump-bashing academic's blog.  I'm a professor!  I got my Ph.D. from Berkeley!  I hate Trump and rant about racism and misogyny!  Throw in a bunch of links to books, articles and some seriously pretentious music, and one might think that the "unmutual" thing, with all of the Carlin-speak is just an affectation.  Don't worry, I'm really one of you!  I'll never challenge your core beliefs and this is a safe space for squishy lefty-ism!

Except... no.  Just... no.

And then, something like a mass shooting happens, the left turns to one of its sacred cows-- gun control-- and I start asking a different set of questions, poking at the left.  Now, I can poke at the right on this one too because... arming teachers?!  Where the fuck does one even start on this shit?!  Hence, my Overton Window post.  However, as I have regularly written, the issue of guns drops the collective IQ of this country and simply prevents damn near everyone from thinking rationally.  I take this as an opportunity, though, to poke at the left.

And readership drops noticeably.  I can watch those numbers!  (Hey, whoever you are, you're still reading!)

This isn't a "monetized" site.  I write these posts in the morning over my coffee.  This is for fun.  If you get something out of it, great.

Imagine, though, that I were paid for it, and dependent on that money.  I'd be watching those numbers, thinking about a paycheck.  If I established an audience that looked for a daily helping of scholarly-but-profane Trump-bashing, and then strayed from that for a while, and readership dropped off, I'd lose money, and that would be an issue for me.  I'd be locked into the audience I had established.  I'm not, because I do this for fun, and I can write whatever the hell I want.  If some people drift away realizing that I'm not who they thought I was, then it's no skin off my back because I was never paid for this in the first place.

But think about this from the perspective of any media outlet that operates on ad revenue.  Establish an audience, and that audience will develop expectations.  Do anything that breaks from their expectations, and they drift away.  Unless you can replace them immediately, you're fucked.

It's fun and easy, and right to bash institutions like Fox and MSNBC.  What if they were to change, though?  They can't, can they?  At least not quickly.

MSNBC took a long time to become what it is, one show at a time.  It began as kind of a nothing network with no raison d'etre, and then Olbermann started doing lefty commentary, which slowly transformed the network.  Once that reputation was there, though, it was there.

Could Fox become anything other than what it is now?  How?  Stop running the kinds of shows it runs, and the current audience would stop watching.  Who would start?  You see the problem.

Ideological media cocoons are problematic in all directions.

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

Cathy Fink, "Safe Harbor Rag & Wild Hog In The Woods," from Banjo Haiku.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Trump and the Overton Window

I have tried to write about "the Overton Window" before, and... here goes, again.

It is one of those concepts that is intellectually valuable, but difficult for those of us mathematically inclined because it is difficult to specify in mathematical terms.  Essentially, there is a range of options that are "conceivable," and that range can expand or contract, or move left or right.  Part of politics is moving that window.  Something that was once inconceivable can become conceivable, and that changes a political dynamic.

This is most obvious with Trump in terms of his corruption.  Really, though, every time Trump opens his mouth or tweets, he redefines what is and isn't conceivable.  (Must... not... use... obvious... link...)

So, the arming teachers thing.  This isn't going to happen.  Make sure you have a coherent argument about this, though.  None of this GUNS ARE SCAAAARY stuff.  So,

1)  Trump wildly overestimates the number of teachers who have even the most basic understanding of how to handle a gun.

2)  Trump wildly overestimates the number of teachers who have any willingness to handle a gun.

3)  Handling a gun in a crisis requires extensive tactical training.

4)  Handling a gun in a crisis is extremely psychologically difficult, and even those few who can hit a target at the range mostly can't do it in a crisis.  Estimates vary, but less than half of soldiers in combat actually fire their weapons.  Soldiers.

So, even if we grant Trump a "mulligan" on 1 and 2, like the Family Research Council did for all of his affairs, he's just a fucking moron for not understanding 3 and 4.

Note what I'm not doing.  I'm not saying, "GUNS ARE SCAAARY!!!!"  What I'm doing is called, "logic."  I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  Guns drop the IQ levels of everyone in American politics.

Anyway, guns in schools?  No.  Dumb idea, and it won't happen.  But, Trump promoting it?

That matters.  Why?  The Overton Window.

We have a difficult time in this country acknowledging the fact that the President is a batshit crazy moron.  Political norms require us to treat policy positions from the President as acceptable, and within the Overton Window, simply because they are promoted by the President, based on the premise that a president cannot, by definition, be a batshit crazy moron.  Ideas, then, are normalized to at least some degree simply by having a president say them.

There is a range of positions on any issue that can be considered within the Overton Window.  Expanding the Overton Window in either direction expands the realm of possible outcomes in that direction.  Ideas outside the Overton Window are generally considered to be batshit crazy.  However, if we treat any position the president takes as defined to be not batshit crazy, then the act of the president taking a position puts that position within the Overton Window, and expands the Overton Window in that direction.

Trump advocates giving guns to teachers.  It won't happen, and Trump's statements don't make the idea any less batshit crazy.  However, the fact that Trump is taking the position, publicly and repeatedly, means that we are expanding the realm of positions that are considered publicly.  Ideas less extreme, then, are placed in comparison to the idea of arming teachers.  The policy debate shifts to the advantage gun control opponents who take less extreme positions simply because the Overton Window has shifted.  Anyone who doesn't advocate giving guns to teachers suddenly looks like a moderate.

Moderation and extremism are relative.  This was a common point I had to make during the 2016 Democratic nomination contest because of the damned Bernie people.  Any time someone pointed out that Sanders was an extremist within the context of American politics, the response from anyone who had quaffed deeply from the Sanders kool-aid was to say that Sanders wouldn't be considered an extremist in Denmark.

Which would have been relevant if he had been running for office in Denmark.

Moderation and extremism are relative.

Trump is an idiot and not remotely connected to reality.  Arming teachers is not going to happen.  The fact that Trump is promoting the idea, though, shifts the debate.  It shifts the Overton Window, and makes other positions less extreme by comparison.

Note, though, that this wouldn't happen if we treated Trump the way we should:  like the batshit crazy moron he is, whose every word should be ridiculed.  Our political system still cannot fully adjust to the fact that our President is not mentally or psychologically fit for office.

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

The Black Lillies, "See Right Through," from Whiskey Angel.


Friday, February 23, 2018

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

Bill Frisell, "Two Arms," from In Line.


On guns, ignore Trump

Much is being made of the... bizarreness of Trump's latest comments on guns and gun control.  He vaguely now backs expanded background checks and perhaps trying to restrict bump stocks, but... maybe arming teachers?  Well...  Uh...  Um...

Moving on...

And that's my point.  Remember that Trump is the sideshow.  If Trump sounds like he doesn't have a clue what his policy is or what he's doing, that's because he... doesn't have a clue about policy, and he doesn't have a clue what he's doing.  He's Trump.

You know who else is ignoring him?  Speaker Paul Ryan.  Legislation doesn't pass unless it gets a floor vote in the House of Representatives, and one of the cool things about being Speaker is that if you don't want a bill to get a floor vote... it won't get one.  All you have to do is as follows.  Someone introduces a bill that a) you don't like, and b) might pass, send the bill to a committee chaired by someone who doesn't like the bill and has at least some claim to jurisdiction.  Have that person perform a magical act that I like to call, "jack fucking shit."  Through this magical act, the bill dies.  The bill simply doesn't get voted out of committee.  Hell, maybe the committee is stacked with more loyalists than Congress, and they vote the bill down anyway, and it doesn't get to the floor!  No floor vote for you!  Too blunt an instrument?  The Rules Committee can always let opponents attach "poison pill" amendments to the bill, and that lets things get really fun.  The Speaker always stacks the Rules Committee with hardcore party loyalists.

And like I keep saying, if Paul Ryan lets a bill get to the floor that the Freedom Caucus doesn't like, he gets Boehnered, so... he won't.  No gun control, regardless of Trump.

Regardless of the protesters...

That's how negative agenda control does its thing.  And the guns-for-teachers thing... that just ain't happenin'.

This isn't 'Nam.  There are rules.  Congress isn't going to do anything.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The new Pennsylvania redistricting plan

Pennsylvania has a new congressional map.  Democrats will gain a couple of seats.  If you want a good write-up, here's one over at Roll Call, but there's more going on here.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a complicated beast that often makes strange bedfellows.  Remember how partisan gerrymandering works.  I did a simple demonstration in my last write-up on the topic, so I won't elaborate again here, but the basic point is that you pull off a partisan gerrymander by "packing" the other party's voters into a small number of districts with inefficiently large majorities.  Efficiency is really at the core of Gill v. Whitford, so more on that when we get a ruling, but that's the subject for future posts.

Anyway, how do you make a district that is entirely or nearly all Democratic?  Simple.  Make it a "majority-minority" district.  All racial or ethnic minorities.  Republicans are basically a white people's party.  It's just the truth these days.  If you draw a district in which the overwhelming majority of the population consists of non-whites, you've got a district in which the Democrats have an overwhelming majority.  A packed district.

And the 1965 Voting Rights Act, as conventionally interpreted, tells us that we are supposed to create majority-minority districts where possible and convenient.  You know who benefits from that?  Republicans.  This interpretation of the VRA all but requires Republican partisan gerrymanders because it instructs states to pack Democrats inefficiently into a small number of districts.

Yes, Republicans love the requirement for majority-minority districts.  If you have a district in which 90% of the population is African-American, that's a lot of Democrats who could have been spread out in more districts, giving the Democrats majorities in more districts.

So, Pennsylvania has a new map, undoing a Republican partisan gerrymander.

And you know who's challenging that map?  Along with the NAACP... Republicans.  Why?  It reduces the number of majority-minority districts!  VRA!  For a quick write-up, see this post over at the Election Law Blog, and follow them more closely since Rick Hasen is always up on this stuff.

Will this challenge work?  I doubt it.  Still, it is a good reminder of the intrinsic tradeoffs in redistricting.  Goo-goos like to pretend that this is a simple process corrupted by a few meanies, but... no.  Do you want to have people in Congress who, ya' know, aren't white?  You need majority-minority districts.  That means Republican partisan gerrymanders.  This stuff ain't easy, folks.  Goo-goos just don't know how to think through the math.

Are the Republicans siding with the NAACP in the challenge doing so in good faith?  Fuck no.  That doesn't mean the underlying principle is entirely wrong.  Policy is hard.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Survey of political scientists on presidents: My colleagues are smoking something

The "Presidents & Executive Politics" section of the American Political Science Association is smoking something.

Anyway, there is a paper making the rounds by Brandon Rottinghaus and Justin Vaughn, in draft form, "Official Results of the 2018 Presidents and Executive Politics Presidential Greatness Survey."

It is the political scientists' version of whether or not the Hulk can beat up Superman.  You see, Supes is really strong, but the madder Hulk get, the stronger Hulk get, so...  The correct answer is that Squirrel Girl can beat up anyone, but now I'm getting way deep into comic book lore.

Back to politics.

Who's more awesome?  George Washington or Abraham Lincoln?  Oh, who cares?  What you really want to know is who is the worst?

My colleagues over in the Executive Politics section blew that one.  They put Trump at the bottom.

The correct answer, until Trump blows up some shit really badly, is James Buchanan.

I have, on occasion, written in derogatory terms about Trump.  OK, I suppose, technically, I have referred to him as, "the dumbest motherfucker in the history of politics."  Repeatedly.  I have also called him a Russian stooge.  I have compared him to Andy Kaufman's "Tony Clifton" character, Mel Brooks's version of King Louis XVI, President Camacho from Idiocracy, and... OK, I would have trouble keeping track of all of the ways I have talked shit about Donald Trump.  I... don't respect the man.

At all.

Dumbest motherfucker in the history of politics.

And yet, James Buchanan is the worst President in history.  How do I justify this comparison?

Simple.  James Buchanan is at least as responsible as any one person for starting the Civil War.  Basically, he had this stupid thing about how the south had to seceded, but couldn't secede, and tied himself in a set of contradictory knots that set 1861 in motion.  I'll leave it to the historians to give you a better description, but... James Fuckin' Buchanan.  That dude suuuuuucked at his job.

Trump is really bad.  Really bad.  Who's dumber:  Trump or Buchanan?  No question-- Trump.  So, why hasn't Trump surpassed Buchanan in horribleness?

A few thoughts:

1)  Time.  Trump has only been in office just over a year.  It kind of feels like a time warp, doesn't it?  But, it has only been a year.  He could still start a nuclear war over some stupid shit, in which case, look out Jimmy-boy, your last place title will be taken away.  Then again, I may not be here to bestow the medal on Donny.  The radioactive, glowing medal.

2)  Checks.  As horrible as John Kelly is, and as horrible as a lot of other people are... remember that line before "Liddle" Bob Corker underwent his Stepford treatment?  He called the White House, "adult day care."  Maybe it has been working, to a large extent.  If people like Kelly and Mattis have been managing Trump's Trumpiness... no Earth-shattering kaboom.  Marvin's view of Venus remains obstructed.

3)  Opportunity.  This is probably the big one.  Buchanan was facing a country falling into crisis because of the unsustainable nature of slavery and the north/south divide.  Could it have been handled better?  OBVIOUSLY!!!  It was still the kind of situation that even a really smart president would have had a tough time handling.  Trump came into office with a growing economy (despite his lies), a low crime rate (despite his lies), mostly stable international politics (despite his lies)...  Yes, North Korea can be dangerous, but all you really have to do to handle them is just understand that they're all bluster and don't shoot first.  Yes, Han shot first, and yes, he was badass for doing it, but dealing with North Korea just means understanding that it's bluster.  Trump hasn't had a real crisis.  Three more years...  Do you think he can handle one?  Here's my standard question for this kind of thing.  Imagine So-and-So as President in October of 1962.  Trump would have ended humanity because he's a "fucking moron" (source:  Tillerson, Rex).

So, yes, James Buchanan still has the all-time worst title.  That doesn't mean Trump won't take the title away.  Trump is the least intelligent, and least qualified in terms of knowledge, preparation, disposition, and integrity.  He is the most corrupt, and possibly controlled by a foreign power.  He lies more than any political figure in history.  He is a straight-up sociopath.  Sorry, "anti-social personality disorder."  Fuck that.  He's a psychopath.  I hate euphemisms.

Despite all of that, he is not, I repeat, not the worst President in US history.  That title still belongs to James Buchanan.  Will Trump take the title away at some point in the next three years?

Well, like I said.  Imagine Trump as President in October of 1962.  He doesn't even know what the nuclear triad is.  Right now, Trump is not the worst ever.  Those who think he is are smoking whatever Devin Nunes has in his bong.  And if it turns out I'm wrong, we'll all be aflame.

Who made that man a President?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Finding villains to explain policy defeats

One of the more predictable and irritating patterns in political discussion is that, in any policy dispute, one side will lose.  That is the nature of political dispute.  The side that doesn't get its way on policy will need to find some small cabal of villains who have corrupted the political process through nefarious means that haven't actually been demonstrated through political science.

[Facepalm...]

There are several components to this.  First, there is the step of finding just the right kind of survey that shows "the public is on my side!"  Surveys are manipulable, though.

Once you do that, you move on to making two arguments.  First, you claim to have moral authority on the basis of public support.  Of course, this is total fucking bullshit.  After all, if we followed this line of reasoning, Brown v. Board was a terrible miscarriage of democracy, and anyone making the argument must immediately concede when the polls run against them.  Do you think they will?  No.  Of course not.  Bullshit hypocrisy.

Anyway, we move from there to a misunderstanding of politics.  Democracy means a majority wins!

OK, time for some political science from my grand-advisor (my advisor's advisor).  Robert Dahl.  His best book was A Preface to Democratic Theory.  Despite the title, Dahl didn't even like to use the term, "democracy."  He preferred, "pluralism," and distinguished between a variety of forms of pluralism.  The key to pluralism is that power is held, not by a single figure or a single group, but by multiple groups.  Pluralism, though, is not majoritarianism, and preference intensity matters, as it should in economic terms.  A committed minority will frequently defeat a more apathetic majority.  So, even when those surveys-- manipulated though they often are-- show a real majority on one side, what they frequently miss is that the minority is often more committed than the majority.

Yes, committed minorities defeat apathetic majorities.  This is a very good predictor of policy disputes.  Robert Dahl.

What it lacks, though, is the kind of psychologically satisfying angle that the committed people within the less-committed majority want, because they get really pissed off when they lose.

So, they need a villain.  Pluralism just isn't sufficiently villainous-sounding.

You know what sounds villainous?

Money!!!!  "Special" interest groups!!!!  By the way, I never use the word, "special."  A "special" interest group is just an interest group you don't like.

No, people, the issue is that Robert Dahl is still right.  A Preface to Democratic TheoryGood book.

See?  I got through that whole post without talking about gun control or the NRA!  Damn... oops!

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

Um, you know Wakanda isn't a real country, right?  Instead, here's King Sunny Ade.  Still pretty awesome.  This is from Live Live Juju.


Monday, February 19, 2018

The politics of fear and why we fear what we fear

What scares you?  I don't mean DSM-type phobias.  I just mean simple fears.  Phobias are different.

There is some controversial research based on MRIs, asserting that liberals are more motivated by anger, and conservatives by fear, but fear is pretty hard-wired into humanity generally.  And it matters.  Part of the "conservatives are scared" argument is based on measuring activity in the amygdala, which is sometimes called the "fear center" of the brain, but... go read stuff by neuroscientists for that.  Let's just get into the weeds here on the politics.

Racial and ethnic minorities.  Trans people.  Gay people.  Are you scared of them?  I'm betting no.  You are reading a political scientist's blog.  I'm a CIS, straight, white dude, and that conditions what I see and what I am likely to say, but... why the hell should I be afraid of anyone "other?"  I never really got that, but lots of people are afraid.

And it's pretty interesting how you can determine who has what kinds of attitudes.  I always relish any chance to refer to the American National Election Studies survey.  Why?  Numbers are awesome!  In 2008, we asked a pretty cool question:  we asked if respondents had friends, family, etc., whom they knew to be gay!  Now, keep in mind that opinions on gay marriage have been changing pretty fast.  In 2008... your lefty hero, Barack Obama, was still opposed to gay marriage!  (Publicly, anyway...  bloody coward...)

Dick Cheney?  He supported it.  Why?  We'll get to that.

Anyway, the NES survey asked respondents about whether or not they had friends and family who were gay.  And, we can compare answers to positions on gay marriage!

Respondents who said they did have friends and family who were gay?  51.9% supported gay marriage, with another 23.9% supporting civil unions.  Respondents who said they didn't?  24.6% supported gay marriage and 27.4% supported civil unions.

Knowing gay people matters!  Why?  Well, at least in part, it helps cut into the bullshit about gay people being child molesters 'n shit.  If you actually know gay people, you are more likely to understand that, gay people are, ya' know, people.

Extend to trans people.  Could anyone seriously believe that trans people are going into bathrooms with the intent of committing assault if they actually knew trans people?  Gets harder, doesn't it?

So, why did Cheney support gay marriage before Obama?  His daughter is gay.  It's amazing what happens when you actually interact with people.  Sometimes they get less scary.

It doesn't always work that way.  Race has been tricky.

We have a very important term in statistical analysis:  ecological inference.  Wanna know why it's a no-no?

Back in the bad-old days of the Jim Crow south (and gee, it's a good thing we aren't restricting voting rights anymore, right?), imagine the following empirical question.  Look at counties.  What would be the statistical relationship between the proportion of a county that is African-American, and the proportion voting Democratic?

In the pre-civil rights south?

The answer was, more African-Americans, higher vote shares for the Democrats.

In the pre-civil rights south.

Why?  It wasn't how the African-Americans were voting.  They weren't allowed to vote.  If they tried, well... you know what that song, "Strange Fruit," is really about, right?  What happened was that in counties with more African-Americans, the whites were really fucking racist, and so they were even more supportive of the party of segregation, which was, at the time, the Democrats.  Remember, pre-civil rights south.

Proximity without interaction.  Result?  Fear.  Result?  Domestic terrorism, murder...  U-S-A!  U-S-A!

There I go, being a downer again.

Now, remember Bill O'Reilly?  Yeah, I know.  I'm sorry to make you think about him again, but... this matters.  You remember that he was a racist, as well as a serial sexual harasser, right?  One of his more... entertainingly clueless demonstrations of racism was his visit to a Harlem restaurant called Sylvia's.  He went there expecting some sort of raucous scene from a movie directed by someone racist, and instead found... [gasp]...  humans!  Acting like humans!*

Yes, we can comment on O'Reilly's casual and clueless racism, but we can also notice what happens when someone like that actually comes into contact with African-Americans as people, and just interacts with them.  He notices that they are people!  Don't just focus on the shock.  Focus on the fact that even someone as stupid and racist as O'Reilly can learn, at least a little!

See, I'm not being a downer!  I'm showing you the bright side!

It is all too tempting to think of racism as a dichotomy.  Person A is racist, person B is not.  You're either a KKK-style racist, or you're marching with MLK.  It isn't so simple.  We are, each of us, bound by a set of attitudes, many of which are implicit and of which we are unaware that condition how we respond to social situations, and that's before we even get into structural racism, because if I start down that path, I'm never getting this post back on track.

Bill O'Reilly, like plenty of people who live in de facto segregated white communities, never interacts with African-Americans.  His ideas about what African-Americans are like... come from fiction and stereotypes.

So he's scared.

How do white people (hi!) not be scared?  Same thing as straight people and gay people.  Interaction.  Even Bill O'Reilly managed to realize that African-Americans weren't as scary as he thought!  If Bill O'Reilly can start to confront his fears, imagine what would happen if people less racist than O'Reilly had more interaction across racial and ethnic lines.

Just sayin'...  And remember, we've got social science data on this!

OK, liberals, time for your medicine now.

GUNS!!!   BOOO!!!!

Calm down.  As I keep reminding you, you aren't going to be shot.

Have you ever shot a gun?  If you really are that terrified of guns, probably not, or at least not regularly.  Care to see where I'm going with this?

How many people own guns?  Best estimates:  a little under 1/3 of Americans.  They aren't going to shoot you.  Once again, here's the link to FBI crime statistics, and here's the link to CDC top causes of mortality.

If you grow up in a rural area where hunting is prevalent, or in a military family, or something like that, you grow up in proximity to guns.  And they just aren't that scary.  And 1/3 of Americans own guns, with around 40% of people living in households with guns.  For a lot of lefties, this is just an unfathomable culture.  Lefties are, largely speaking, viscerally afraid of guns.  Most have had very little exposure to guns, and that lack of exposure perpetuates the fear, making the culture that much more unfathomable.

Look, I'm an academic.  The most effete of effete.  Most of us get our meat at Whole Paycheck, and the rest are a bunch of sneering vegans.  I get it.  Still...

How much exposure does it take to get over that fear?  I'm the wrong person to ask.  Academic.  Whole Paycheck shopper.  I'm not afraid of guns because I do the math, not because I shoot, so ask your rural or military-associated friends.

Hopefully you have some.

What they learn, though, and what gets drilled into their heads, is a set of basic rules.  Always treat every gun as though it is loaded.  Never point the gun at anything that you don't intend to shoot.  And never at a person (keeping in mind that you treat every gun as though it is loaded).  Always point the gun at the ground until you are ready to aim (keeping in mind that you treat every gun as though it is loaded).  Never put your finger on the trigger, until you are ready to shoot.  These kinds of things.

People who live around guns-- and there are a lot-- mostly have these rules as second nature.  That makes guns less scary.  That's the point of having safety procedures and drilling safety procedures.

People who go hunting on weekends?  This is second nature to them, and the guns just can't be very scary.  If you have never held a gun before, though, and a gun is nothing more than news stories on shootings...

They just scare you.

This doesn't mean one side is right or wrong on policy.  That is a completely separate matter, and nothing in this post addresses gun control policy efficacy, morality or tradeoffs at all.  I am simply making the observation that if you go hunting, target shooting, or something like that, or live in one of the 40% or so of households with guns, and have a basic understanding of gun safety, guns aren't viscerally scary.  Lefties tend to have a visceral fear of guns, and the most hardcore gun control advocates generally aren't hunters, target shooters, or people with significant experience around guns, and that fear is related to a lack of experience.

Now, that said, if some nutjob is actually pointing a gun at you or shooting people in your vicinity, you may shit your pants.  As in, I am predicting that you might shit your pants, and granting you permission to shit your pants.  I would too.  And no, conservatives, having your gun won't protect you.  How fast is your draw?  Not fast enough.  Your bowels are faster.

However, I go back to that 40% figure.  There are two ways to take it.  First:  HOLY FUCKING SHIT WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE BECAUSE THERE ARE GUNS EVERYWHERE!!!

OK, but remember those crime statistics and mortality rates?

So, here's the second way to take it:  the probability of any one gun being used to kill someone is damn near zero.

The structure of that statement should sound familiar, if you think hard enough...

And if you take that second interpretation, you don't freak out about guns.

How, then, do you get from the first version to the second version?  Well, math.  That's my way, effete academic that I am.  If you don't want to go that route...

Exposure.  Interaction and exposure.  Don't be scared.  Confront your overblown fears.  Take a shooting lesson, learn the safety procedures, and they might get less scary.  It probably won't change your mind on much of anything, but it might help you think more clearly.

If you do not own a gun, have never owned a gun, have never spent any time hunting or target shooting, and do not interact with people who do, then the concept of a gun as anything other than the weapon in a "mass shooting" just doesn't register in your brain.

Gee, do you think that might affect how you think about guns?

Fear.  Proximity, exposure and fear.  This all works the same way.

At some point, the liberal reaction to this is some version of the following:  But guns really do kill people!  A gun isn't a person and nothing is more evil than bigotry!

Fear of guns is not prejudice, and I am not equating fear of guns with racism, homophobia, or anything like that.

I'll write that again:  I am not equating fear of guns with racism, homophobia, or any other form of bigotry.

Racism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry are evil.  Fear of guns is not evil.  It is just a fear.  Clear?

At its core, though, bigotry is rooted in fear, and generally a fear that comes in part from lack of interaction.  It is easy to fear that with which we never interact.  It's hard to have the same visceral fear that many liberals have of guns if you grow up hunting and learning gun safety.

That, itself, does not have direct policy implications.  It has implications for how we think about policy.

Then, of course, there is the question of when fears are more appropriate.  When Trump won, I started expressing what I still consider a legitimate fear:  a fear of nuclear war.  The probability that Trump will start a nuclear war is low, by some standards.  Admiral Stavridis put the odds of a nuclear war with North Korea at around 10%.  The thing is, the cost of nuclear war is so insanely high that 10% is way too high.

Tell me that there is a 10% chance of a major recession, and I'll shrug.  Recessions happen.  I've studied economics.  Tell me there is a 10% chance that I will contract an antibiotic-resistant strain of nectrotizing fasciitis if I eat at restaurant, and I ain't eatin' at that fuckin' restaurant!

This is where we have to consider the probability of a bad thing happening along with the level of catastrophe.

If you are afraid of X, what is the actual probability that X will happen, and how bad would it be?  Both matter.  I admit, I'm afraid of nuclear war.  I thought I was done with that when the Soviet Union fell, but then James Comey decided he didn't want Hillary to be President, so here we are again.

That's the calculation, though.  If you are afraid of a group, what is the real probability that a member of that group will do something to you?  Is that belief based on stereotypes or actual data?  Exposure and interaction can help to break down stereotypes.  Guns?  They are different because guns are dangerous, but what is the real probability?  Low, and exposure can help with the visceral fears.

Of course, you might die.  Scratch that, you will die.  It's just a matter of how and when, but the scary stuff is unlikely, so don't worry about it.

Why do I worry more about nuclear war?  I'm just one person, but there are 7.6 billion people on this planet.  Nuclear war seems to me to matter more.



*At this point, my Carlin-mouth requires me to comment that O'Reilly's expectation was that people at Sylvia's would behave horribly by calling each other "motherfucker," which is one of George Carlin's seven dirty words.  Rather than go on yet another explication of the Latin versus Germanic issue and arbitrary societal taboos, I'll simply point out that the problem was O'Reilly's expectation having been built entirely from stereotypes.

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

Blind Blake, "I Was Afraid Of That."  Standard advice-- go for the JSP boxed set if you are a collector.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Common sense" arguments are bullshit

Here's a pretty good rule of thumb.  If one side of a political debate is resorting primarily to an appeal to the phrase, "common sense," that side is bullshitting you.

Common sense.  We Americans have a history with that phase, going back to Thomas Paine.  Cool guy.  The thing about the phrase, "common sense," in modern usage is that it has little to do with Paine's approach.

Paine made an argument.  At some point in your life, you probably read Common Sense, and it was basically about how monarchs are worthless leeches, freedom and a form of egalitarianism are derived from a state of nature, and rise up and all that cool stuff.

Paine made an argument.

That's not what people do today when they appeal to "common sense."  Today, when you hear one side of a political debate appeal to "common sense," they are refusing to make an argument.  They are saying, my side is so clearly right that we don't even have to make an argument.  Everyone just knows that we are right.

So, how about a little more history?  Remember Patrick Henry?

"Give me liberty or give me death!"

That guy.  Well, we all get it eventually, so don't worry, Patty-boy!  Also, April 15 is sneaking up on us!

Anyway, you know that Constitution thingie?  Remember how there is this thing called the "Bill of Rights?  Remember how it wasn't originally in the Constitution?  Yeah, weird, right?  The "Bill of Rights" generally refers to the first ten amendments.  Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, right to bear arms but militias or something or... damn that one needed an editor!  (Writing as someone who knows he needs an editor...)

Speech!  LOVE that fucking amendment!  Yup, LOVE that one!

Anywho, you start listing freedoms, and you know who got uncomfortable?  A guy who was already opposed to the Constitution-- Patrick Henry.  If you start listing freedoms... what if you forget one?  Freedom of speech, press, religion, bear arms (militias?), and so on... What happens when some jackass comes along later and says, you didn't say X, so you don't have that freedom!


There were a lot of people nervous about listing rights, prescient about the George Costanza problem.  The solution:  the 9th Amendment, about which you never hear.  "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retain by the people."

Translation:  you have rights that aren't listed.  That way, no fucking asshole will come along years later and say, "nobody listed that right, so it isn't a right!"

And obviously, nobody has ever used that argument!

Oh, wait...

Anyway, what's the logic here?  The logic was that there are basic rights, governed by... remember natural law?... that everybody just knows...

Common sense.

Advocates of 9th amendment reasoning just thought that there was and would be general agreement on the rights that couldn't be violated because they were natural law.

There is religious history here too!  Remember what the story of Adam and Eve actually was?  It wasn't an apple.  It was eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  The story was that humanity-- all of us-- we just know.  Everyone.  Why?  Because we are descended from people who ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  So, we all just... know.  No fancy thinkin' necessary, 'cuz of that forbidden fruit.  It's just in our heads, if you buy into this.

Common sense.

And when you hear a side in a political debate say, "it's just common sense," what that side is doing is saying, "it isn't my responsibility to make an argument because we all just know I'm right."

No.  You never get to do that.  Never.  Anti-intellectualism at its worst.

It is, in fact, the definition of populism as anti-intellectualism.  I have written before about my problems with the concept of "populism," and I am an unabashed elitist snob.  If I didn't believe in the value of education, I wouldn't have spent four years at a highfalutin' college and another six at a highfalutin' university for my doctorate.  Reading matters.  Thinking matters.  Why?

Because you don't just get to say, I know 'cuz I know.


I hereby state that I don't give a flying fuck what these 42% think about anything else.

Let me now clarify.  I am not willing to state that these 42% are wrong about everything else.  I am simply stating that whatever these 42% claim to believe, without having to think, does not deserve consideration.

And if you are claiming that you are right because these 42% agree with you without thinking because they just know...

Seriously?  Seriously?

And this is just one survey question.  I could spend weeks writing posts about the stupid things people believe and barely scratch the surface.

You don't get to say, we all just know.  You need to make an argument and show evidence.  Always.

This is how I perform my job.  My first major line of research was on competitive elections.  Years ago, I was at a panel at the American Political Science Association, and Bruce Cain-- one of my advisors-- was talking about the assumptions that we all just make about elections.  He mentioned that we all just assumed that competitive elections were good and important for democracy.  He asked why?  I thought about it.  I went back to my hotel room, and started sketching out some mathematical models because... he was right.  Nobody ever asked why.  We all just assumed.

That bugs me.  Whenever everyone makes an assumption... whenever everyone agrees without making an argument... I dissent.  So, I started to dissent.  I started sketching out some mathematical models, thinking I was just playing the devil's advocate.  I found that I had an easier time constructing mathematical models showing problems with competitive elections than showing their benefits.

So, I started publishing about how detrimental competitive elections were, and that's how I got my first real line of research through.

This is what I do.  Whenever I see agreement without explanation, that troubles me.  There's going to be a problem.  Something is being ignored.  And I don't trust the intrinsic knowledge of the kind of people who still... today... think that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

I occasionally point out the origin of the title of this blog, which is obscure enough that almost nobody knows it, and nobody thinks to look it up.  I didn't coin the term, "unmutual," and it isn't a "real" word.  It comes from an episode of The Prisoner, called "Change of Mind."  The premise of The Prisoner is that Patrick McGoohan plays a spy who tries to resign for mysterious reasons, but isn't allowed to do so.  He is, instead, captured, and sent to "The Village."  In "Change of Mind," McGoohan is declared "unmutual" because he refuses to integrate into the artificial, bullshit prison society, and just generally doesn't play along with The Village's crap.  I call bullshit.  It's what I do.  I even teach a class on it!

Common sense tells you not to stick your hand on a hot stove.  Common sense tells you not to drive blindfolded.  Common sense is often right!  Notice, though, that I can easily construct an argument for why you shouldn't do these things.  I don't need to rely on "don't do it 'cuz common sense..."

But, policy is complicated and difficult, and to go back to good, ole' George Carlin, remember his mathematical truism (with my statistical correction):  think about how stupid the median person is, and remember that 50% of the population is even dumber.  (Sorry, George, but "average" has multiple definitions, so we have to be precise).  42% think that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old.

If you are basing your argument on the premise that those people just intrinsically "know" that you are right...

I call bullshit.

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

Tony Furtado, "Trouble In Mind" from Full Circle.  Unfortunately, Tony drifted further away from bluegrass later, but this was from his best era.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

What we can never know about Russian election meddling

With the new indictments, I suppose it is time to revisit the issue of Russian involvement in 2016.

Yes, they did a bunch of shit.  They hacked the DNC, and a lot of other stuff.  Yes, they were actively working against Clinton, and on behalf of Trump.  None of this has ever really been a question.  Yes, they had lines of communication with Papadapoulos, Don Jr., Flynn and others.  Yup.  All true.

I have regularly stated, though, that I haven't seen clear indications that they flipped the election, and the indictments touch on this, but let's address why this is such a hard question.

James Comey's pre-election announcement was easy to assess.  You have what we call, in social science, a quasi-experimental design.  An exogenous event occurs, and you can do a pre- and post- measure.  The polls before Comey's announcement were very different from the polls after, by much more than Trump's margins in enough states to swing the election, so shut up about that "Clinton didn't go to Wisconsin" shit.  I'm really sick of that.  Comey flipped the election.  That is measurable with a pre- and post-announcement assessment of polls.

What else is, in principle, measurable?  In principle, we can actually count up candidate visits to states, and look for patterns of statistical association between that and vote shares, controlling for factors like state partisanship and the other important stuff.  If Clinton spends proportionately more time in Florida, and visits matter, then she should do better in Florida.  If not, candidate visits don't matter.  That kind of thing is measurable, but it must be generalizable rather than an ad hoc rule for Wisconsin because Trumpists want to make statements about Wisconsin.  (Can you tell how sick I am of that Wisconsin bullshit?)

We can look at spending.  We can look at aggregate spending across years.  Does the candidate who spends more money, overall, defeat the candidate who spends less money, controlling for other factors, like the state of the economy, Abramowitz's "time for a change" variable, and so forth?  We can look at spending across states within years and ask whether or not the candidate who spends more within a state does better, controlling for the state's political leanings.

All of this is based on the same kind of logic.  Find a baseline, and ask whether or not we systematically observe deviations from that baseline associated with the causal factors we are discussing.

That's how science works.

So, um... how do we do that with the Russian hacking?

Well, we could look at the timing of the release of the DNC hack emails.  Here's RealClearPolitics's favorable/unfavorables for Hillary Clinton.  Can you pick out the date?  It was right before the Democratic Convention.  Did it hurt her?  Not that I could tell.

Then, there's all the trolling.  Here's the problem.  How do you measure the effect of trolling?  Is there variation across states in levels of trolling?  Variation across counties?  Can we conduct surveys and ask, in the surveys, "so, um, hey.  How much of your FaceBook feed was a bunch of Russian trolling?"

You see the problem.  Without a way to measure the variation, our method breaks down.

Did the DNC hacks move the poll numbers?  I just didn't see it.  Russian trolling?  That's... hard.  I don't know how to measure that effect.

Here's how this stuff could have mattered.  Maybe it helped shift media attention, and that helped Trump by distracting the press away from all of the very real shit surrounding Trump.  Donald Trump is and has always been a con artist.  See:  Trump University.  The press, though, spent a lot of the campaign discussing bullshit pseudo-scandals like Clinton's email thing.  Throw in Comey, and maybe things might have been different.

That's a lot of conditionals, and that's why I'm uncomfortable attributing outcomes to Russian trolling.  It's just too hard to draw the causal connection.

Comey?  Nope.  He gave the White House to Trump, and the Russians did engage in meddling.  The effect of that meddling?  I dunno.  That doesn't legally exonerate them, and Trump is full of shit on "collusion."  His campaign absolutely did collude.  Flynn, Don Jr., Papadapoulos...

My point is merely that, from a social science perspective, assessing the impact of Russian trolling is extremely difficult, and I am not convinced that it affected the outcome of the 2016 election.

Comey?  Pin the blame on him, if you want to blame anything other than just American gullibility.

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

Lydia Loveless, "They Don't Know," from Somewhere Else.


Friday, February 16, 2018

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

Charlie Hunter, "Running In Fear From Imaginary Assailants," from Friends Seen and Unseen.

Yes, shootings occur.  Yes, some illegal immigrants commit crimes.  The point of today's post is that people overestimate the likelihood of certain things, scare themselves shitless about some overblown threat, and while I detest both-sides-ism, liberals and conservatives each have their overblown fears.

Are you actually afraid of dying an "unnatural" death, whatever that means?  Chill out about guns, and chill out about illegal immigrants.  Stop texting and driving, eat healthier and exercise.

Please, please, please stop texting and driving.  That one affects me too.  Using your turn signal wouldn't hurt either...

OK, that's enough ranting.  I promised you some jazz...

On stupid fears

Yet another immigration and guns post this morning.

Policy is hard.  Some policies are particularly hard.  Tax policy is hard.  I have studied enough economics to not have a clear position on how I would design a tax code.  That latest bill was stupid because it was exploitable, which is what happens when you don't go through the normal committee/hearing/mark-up process, and ya' know, stop to think before legislating, but over-all, tax policy is hard.  It is, however, amenable to math.  Economists have overly high opinions of themselves because they do math, but this is where I give my version of the Gordon Gekko speech:

Math, for lack of a better word, is good.  Math is right.  Math works.  Math clarifies, cuts through...

It also gets rid of those pesky, stupid things that cloud our judgment.  Like fear.  Fear of things that won't happen to you.

Fear of getting shot.  You aren't going to be shot.  The full 2017 report isn't available yet, but here is a link to the full FBI crime report for 2016.  You are not going to be shot.

Every once in a while, I have to remind everyone of what I call, "the paradox of news."  If it is newsworthy, that's because it isn't actually that common.  Popular dialog right now discusses mass shootings as though they are rampant and common.  They are not, on any properly measured scale.  There are 327,205,000+ people in this country, as of this morning, according to the Census estimates.

Here's what will really kill you.

Even as far as shootings go, what doesn't make the news is suicide.  Why not?  Too common.  Paradox of news.  You see/hear/read about the mass shootings, but don't see/hear/read about the suicides because they are too common to be considered news.

Hence one scares you, and the other doesn't.

Math, for lack of a better word, is good.  Math is right.  Math works.  Math clarifies, cuts through...

And never forget how many people die of waterborne pathogens.  Don't be like Donald Trump, just because they die in... the wrong kind of country.

Are you really afraid of guns?  Do the math.

Then, there is immigration.  The Senate won't pass anything on immigration.  My assessments have been that the House was the stumbling block, but apparently, even the Senate won't do anything.  So... fears.

Let's be blunt.  You know who, historically, had the most legitimate reason to fear illegal immigrants?  The native Americans.

Immigration and crime?  Yeah, kind of a bullshit thing.  Why do people think there is some crime link?  Because there has always been a segment of society who has thought that.  Whether it was the Chinese, Italians... or now Mexicans... it doesn't matter.

Economically, illegal immigrants take the jobs that we Americans would never take anyway, at wages that Americans wouldn't accept.  So the economy benefits.  They don't go to the government for taxpayer-funded benefits because they want to stay hidden.

Oh, and DACA?  Here's an unmutual opinion.  Anyone who came out of the shadows for DACA was being a fool.  Hi!  I'm an illegal immigrant!  Come and get me, next president, if you happen to be a racist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual "white nationalist!"  ('Cuz we're going with euphemisms now...)

Would I have gone for DACA protection?  Hell no.  Would I have advised anyone to do it?  Hell no.

It wasn't obvious that the next president would be as vile as Trump, but the risk was always there.

Anyway, is there a real reason to fear immigrants, illegal or otherwise?  No.  Not if you think rationally and go through the actual numbers.

Oh, and by the way, this even touches on one of my hobbies!  Remember Freddie Gray?  That young African-American guy who was beaten to death by racist pigs for having the wrong skin color?  No, not that one, the other one.  No, the other one.

Nope.  Not that one, the...

Damn.  There have been a lot of those, haven't there?

Anyway, Freddie Gray was the one in Baltimore who was hassled by the cops for having what they called a "switchblade."  Why are switchblades legally restricted?  Serious answer: fear of ethnic gangs, and... um... not kidding here... West Side Story.*

Yeah, scary ethnic people.  We have a long tradition of this particular fear.  And it is a fear borne of... not doing the math!

You aren't going to be shot.  Immigrants aren't going to come for you, or your job.

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky won a Nobel for their work on probability and the ways in which people fail to assess probability correctly.

Yeah.  No kiddin', fellas.



*I wrote a long post on this a while back.  Reminder for those in Cleveland that Cleveland-proper has some very restrictive laws, even aside from the Ohio state messiness!  And if you have too much melanin in your skin, you really need to be careful, because that's what this stuff is really about.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

On immigration and guns: policy stalemate has many causes

The Senate has been working towards an immigration bill of... some... sort.  As I have been telling you, though, it doesn't matter and it won't go anywhere.  The House of Representatives won't pass anything that Senate Democrats will accept.  Immigration policy isn't budgetary, so the GOP can't use budget reconciliation.  That means this is subject to the filibuster, so any immigration bill needs at least nine Democrats, presuming all Republican Senators stay on board.  In the House, Paul Ryan won't let anything get a vote unless it is a hardline bill approved by the Freedom Caucus, and that means no "path to citizenship" or anything like that.  No DACA deal, no nothin'.  If Paul Ryan let anything like that get a floor vote, a bunch of semi-moderate Republicans in the House would peel off and join the Democrats, the House would then pass the bill, against a majority of the majority party, and you would get rumblings of the same dissatisfaction that led to Boehner's ouster.  So, Paul Ryan won't let that happen.

Guns.  I wasn't going to write about guns today, but, well, another shooting.  By the numbers, people who can't do math make way too much of this.  You are way more likely to die in a car accident than in a shooting.  Here's the obligatory link to CDC statistics.  Then, of course, there's my thing about how if you really cared about lives saved and lives lost... waterborne pathogens.  It's just that Americans don't care about that because the people who die of that come from "shithole" countries.  I guess there's a reason this country elected Donald Trump.  Ooooh, did I strike a nerve there?

Is there a coalition in Congress to pass "gun control?"  Like immigration, "gun control" is a broad term.  There's an old bit from Yes, Minister*:  something must be done.  This is something, therefore it must be done.  "Gun control" debates frequently fall into that pattern.  A shooting happens, and the pro-gun control side just argues for some gun control... any gun control.  Something must be done.  This is something, therefore it must be done.  Background checks!  (Never mind whether or not the perpetrator would have passed a background check, or had, say, gotten the weapon from a parent anyway...).

Regardless, "gun control" is a broad category of policies.  It isn't just a single thing.  To ask why we don't have a national registry is a different question than to ask why we don't put those on the terrorist watch list on the "do not buy" list, which is different from why we don't check people's social media feeds and use those to determine who can and cannot buy guns.

Right now, though, compare any of these policies to immigration.  In the Senate, it is possible to hypothesize a bipartisan coalition for a variety of immigration policies.  The House has the Freedom Caucus.

For guns, though, one of the issues that liberals tend to have is the "BUT EVERYBODY AGREES WITH ME" problem.  No.  That's not true.

You know who doesn't?  The majority in the House of Representatives, the Senate and the President.

Fun demonstration.  In the 2008 American National Election Studies survey-- the election prior to the passage of Obamacare, we asked a standard healthcare question.  On a 7 point scale, how much should the system be government-run versus private?  20.3% pure government (1), 14% almost pure government (2), 13.2% mostly government (3) and 18.9% half-n'-half (4).  By the numbers, that's 47.5% primarily government, with another 18.9% half-n'-half.

Obamacare passed, which still left the system primarily private.  Subsidies for private insurance, along with regulations of private insurance, but still private insurance-based.

So, was it considered too public or too private?

Yeah, you see the problem.

MY POLICIES ARE POPULAR AND THEY MUST BE IMPLEMENTED!!!!

It doesn't quite work that way when you move from generalized survey questions to actual policy.

And on gun control, yes, liberals, people disagree with you.  And they run both chambers of Congress.  What does Trump think?

Trump doesn't think anything.  He'll just go along with his party line right now.  But, on immigration, there are Republican Senators, like Lindsey Graham, who are actively working on legislation because they have policy preferences that run along different lines from the Freedom Caucus.

On guns... no.  Opposition to gun control is too central to conservatism right now.  And you don't get to look at your favorite survey results to tell yourselves that everybody secretly agrees with you, even the ones who tell you, vehemently, that they don't.  Like the ones running Congress.


*Ray Wolfinger referenced this show all the time in grad school, and it's amazing what sticks with you...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Bob Corker's possible un-retirement and Republican politics

Curiouser and curiouser.  Ever feel like you just ate or drank something you shouldn't have?  We can have a lot of fun asking who Trump is in this analogy.  (And there's no question who Roy Moore is, right?  Except that I doubt he can do math.*)

Anyway, Senator "Liddle" Bob Corker (R-TN) may reconsider his decision to retire.  Why?  Short version:  Rep. Marsha Blackburn is the likely Republican nominee to replace him, and... she's batshit crazy.  I'm particular about that term.  It's kind of my thing!  She is "on my batshit list!"

Yes, here's that paper again!  Going into the 2010 election, I put together a data set of the epithets that Google would suggest, using auto-complete, for every Member of Congress:  idiot, stupid, moron, insane, crazy, nuts, and... batshit crazy!  Google did not suggest any epithets, using auto-complete, for most Members of Congress.  If Google's auto-complete feature suggested any epithets to go along with a Member of Congress's name, I described that legislator as being "on my batshit list."  Sadly, Google has changed their algorithm to prevent the auto-complete feature from doing this anymore, but ahhh, t'was a glorious time.

Bob Corker did not make my batshit list.  You know who did?



Oh, and making that list was associated with lower vote shares, both directly and by helping opponents raise money.

And the latest polls show Blackburn losing to Phil Bredesen.

Then, there's part of what's really going on.

Corker started drinking the Trump kool-aid.  Remember when Corker talked about Trump debasing the nation?  Remember when Corker pointed out the problems of Trump's instability and inability to manage basic executive tasks?  Remember when... Remember when...

Remember when Corker said he wouldn't vote for any tax bill that would increase the deficit?

Remember when I called bullshit on that?  Over and over and over again?  (I apologize for my moment of doubt.)

Remember when he flipped and voted for a tax bill that increased the deficit?

When was the last time Corker did anything even remotely brave?

Since he finally admitted that his spine was jelly on that tax vote, Corker has been a good, "liddle," Trumpist.  He won't cause any problems for anyone in the GOP.  He won't vote against the party on anything, he won't criticize Trump anymore, and he won't go on tv and say the kind of crazy shit that put Marsha Blackburn on my batshit list.

That makes him the perfect Republican for the Trump era.  Perfectly cowed by Donald, just like every other Republican politician in the country, but not likely to go on tv and embarrass the party the way true-believer Trumpists would.

The Republican Party has a plan.  Ride out the Trump administration.  Let him do whatever he wants, protect him from any criticism or investigation, have him sign whatever legislation they can pass, and it's a win-win.  That model is dependent on congressional Republicans doing two things-- circling the wagons around Trump, but not going full Trump themselves.

Corker is now doing that.  Once he flipped on the tax bill and stopped criticizing Trump, he became exactly what the party wants.

Will it work?  Can he beat Blackburn?  I don't know, at this point.  Blackburn is full-on crazy, and in a Tennessee Republican primary, that's an advantage over the cowardly faker.  Remember Alabama.  Generally, bet on the incumbent, but Corker's retirement was a sign that he didn't think he was in a strong position.  That's the problem of assessing these things.  If the weak ones retire, we have what's called a "selection effect."  In a Tennessee Republican primary, the true-believer nutjob may really have the advantage.

This is our world now.  I'm sick of typing that.



*Did you know that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician?  A good one.  Plenty of the mathematical and scientific advances from which we benefit were developed by despicable pieces of fucking shit, and nothing is lower than a child molester.  If you think about it too much, well... there's a great Dr. Who episode called "The Beast Below."  We all suck!  Welcome to The Unmutual Political Blog-- source for your daily dose of misanthropy.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Presidential budgets and Trump's budget

Trump's White House has released a budget.  No, it doesn't matter.

Presidential budgets can matter.  Here's the deal.  Remember that presidents have few legislative powers.  They have the power of the veto, and that's quite a power.  They cannot propose amendments, though, and they cannot even introduce legislation into Congress.  Their budgets are basically dead on arrival.

What is measurable, though, is that presidential priorities, as determined by the kinds of statements made in presidential speeches, are more likely to be taken up by Congress.  Not necessarily passed, but at least worked on, and budgets are statements of priorities.

Donald Trump's budgetary policies are mostly boilerplate Republican policies.  He isn't a "conservative," in the Phil Converse sense.  Converse defined ideology in terms of "constraint."  To be liberal is to be "constrained" to take the liberal positions on a wide range of issues, and to be conservative is to be "constrained" to take the conservative positions on a wide range of issues.  To be a true "ideologue" is not just to hold those positions, but to understand the underpinnings of the belief system.

I think "object permanence" might be too advanced a concept for the Very Stable Genius-in-Chief, so expecting him to understand the tenets of conservatism at a philosophical level would be like expecting one of my cats to be able explain the evolutionary development of the predator-prey relationship and how equilibrium is reached in an ecosystem.  Mostly, they just whine when they're hungry and look at the birds outside, deluded about their ability to catch such things.

Trump had no real input on the development of the White House budget.  It is a boilerplate statement.  More military spending, cuts to domestic programs, and... something about infrastructure which you can safely ignore.

For the most part, Trump is not really deviating from conservative orthodoxy.  Ignore all the blather about how increasing the deficit is a change for the Republican Party.  Deficit hawkery died in the GOP when George H.W. Bush (Mr. Voodoo Economics) made his "no new taxes" pledge, had to back down from it, and then lost in 1992.  When Dole ran in 1996, the former deficit hawk ran on a flat tax pledge.  Nobody in the GOP has seriously cared about debt or deficits in more than two decades.

No, the Trump budget is Republican orthodoxy, deficit expansion included.  He really doesn't deviate from Republican orthodoxy much, and where he does, congressional Republicans don't fight for his policies.

So, um... how's that wall comin'?  If the GOP really wanted to fund that fuckin' thing, they'd do it.  And Democrats couldn't stop them.  Why haven't they?  Because if they really did dump billions of dollars of US taxpayer money into a wall that wouldn't even come close to completion, which Trump promised Mexico would fund... it would be a fiasco, and congressional Republicans don't want to be on the hook for it.  Sure, they'll push for a few dollars here, and a few dollars there, but they don't really have Trump's back on that.

What's left?  The infrastructure thing?  It deviates from modern conservative orthodoxy, and it won't go anywhere.  It's just Trumpian bluster, and it will be ignored.

This post might give you a different picture of the relationship between congressional Republicans and Trump from what I normally describe.  Why?  Different politics.

Congressional Republican leaders have zero respect for Donald.  They know he's a joke.  They have a strategic need to defend him from any and all accusations, but on policy?  As long as he adheres to conservative orthodoxy, they're happy to have him sign their bills.  Otherwise, he is to be ignored.

This is the most bizarre relationship between a president and congressional leaders I have ever seen.  Each side treats the other as useful idiots.  When it comes to policy, congressional leaders see the president as the useful idiot.  When it comes to legal defense, the president sees congressional leaders as the useful idiots.

And they're all correct.

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

Between the drought and Zuma, we're going South Africa today.  I'm ashamed to admit I had to learn of Abdullah Ibrahim from a Gary Lucas cover of this one, but however you find out about him works, I guess.  Here's Abdullah Ibrahim (AKA Dollar Brand) with "Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro," from African Piano Live.  My introduction to this piece was from Gary Lucas's @Paradiso, and while that one isn't on youtube, I'm throwing in a live performance of the piece by Gary just 'cuz.  Yes, he's American, but his cover of this piece brought me to Abdullah Ibrahim.



Monday, February 12, 2018

Expert assessments of democracy in America

I periodically post updates from Bright Line Watch, and their latest update is in.  Here's the link.  I don't have a great deal to add because not all that much has changed from the previous wave of the study, and many of my previous comments apply (see, for example, here and here).

Russia and related investigations have moved the numbers a bit, but the authors of the study are now giving a lot more attention to How Democracies Die, by Dan Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky.  At some point soon, I'll put up a more detailed post on this because it is getting a lot of attention in the more political science-aware circles of the commentariat, but the short version is this:  "ideological collusion."  One side, committed to a set of policy goals over everything else, sacrifices the principles of democracy to a demagog because it allows them to get a few policy wins, and democracy slips away.

I have a lot of concerns right now, obviously, if you read this pretentious, little blog, but that isn't quite the main one.  No, my primary concern is the diminution of journalism.  Ideological collusion can be combatted with facts, presuming the existence of facts and their potential for diffusion.  That doesn't work in the current media environment.

Devin Nunes shouldn't have a microphone.  He is not just a Trump flunky.  He is a stupid Trump flunky.  Trump, himself, is an idiot, and one of the dumbest Members of Congress has done a sloppy job putting together cover for him.  For all of my "stoner philosopher" jokes, the problem is not that Devin Nunes is guilty of ideological collusion.  The problem is that we have a media environment in which people treat Nunes as something other than what he is: a shamelessly incompetent liar who allows Trumpists to keep telling themselves batshit crazy conspiracy theories about how the FBI is some left-wing deep state anti-Trump cabal.

The way to combat someone like Nunes would be with facts.  He isn't a collaborator.  He's just a flunky, and the way such people should be fought is with journalism.

Too bad journalism is dead.