Tuesday, March 20, 2018

A Democratic Representative goes "Second Amendment" on Trump

Representative Tom Suozzi (D-NY).  Learn the name.  Until yesterday, he wasn't on my radar, but as the very, very few readers of this blog know, I have an affinity for the wackos.  Yesterday, this story broke.  The Democratic Representative from New York went there.  The Second Amendment.  Here.  Let's just watch and listen...

Soooo, that happened.

Hey!  Remember Sharron Angle?  She was the one who lost to Harry Reid in 2010.  Why?  It had a little something to do with this clip:

Of course, when Donald Trump echoed that line, and talked about "Second amendment people," the left went ape shit.

Funny, though.  I saw the Suozzi story early yesterday, and scoured the news to see how everyone covered it because... that's what I do.  What's the difference between Suozzi and Angle?  Or Suozzi and Trump?  Mainly, his party affiliation and the direction of his comments.  Big news at Fox, downplayed at CNN and elsewhere.  Gee... I wonder...  Hmmm...

Angle was national news  You'll notice that the clip above is from Maddow.  When I looked for Suozzi in youtube to embed a clip, the first thing that came up was Alex fuckin' Jones.

Let's be clear about something.  A Democratic Member of Congress was making intimations about someone assassinating the sitting President.  There is history here.

What's going to happen?

1)  Suozzi's going to raise a bunch of money from the left.

2)  Some Republican running against Suozzi will also raise a bunch of money, and the net effect will be to hurt Suozzi.

My evidence?  Mainly, "The Crazy Train" paper.

Beyond that, though, here are some questions.  The left and guns...

The left is generally irrationally terrified of guns.  The reaction of the crowd was interesting, though.  How would you react if someone really did what Suozzi suggested?  Keep in mind how Suozzi set up the question-- in terms of failures of the system.  "What if the president was [sic*] to ignore the courts?"  Vague memories of Andrew Jackson quotes may also be running through your mind, along with Trump's semi-informed admiration for Jackson, but that's how Suozzi set up his version of Angle's line.  So, that should inform your thinking about Suozzi's hypothetical, and your hypothetical reaction to it.

At the end of the day, Tom Suozzi and Sharron Angle-- how you evaluate them can differ only if you assess them based on the people against whom their tacit threats are directed, and their comments ride the line.  Are you more OK with that kind of comment directed at Trump because he's Trump?

Think about your own thinking here.  I'm looking at news coverage, and I'm seeing a real difference.

And I fucking hate Trump.

*Subjunctive:  "were."  Yes, I realize that correcting Suozzi's grammar in the context of a tacit threat to the President's life might seem small and petty, but... hi!  Have you met me?

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

John Doyle, "Crooked Jack," from Evening Comes Early.  Irish music isn't kitschy or crass.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Firing Mueller and credible threats

So, it sure likes like Trump is gearing up to fire Robert Mueller.  For whatever it's worth, PredicIt puts the odds of a Mueller replacement by June 30 at 20% or so.

Lindsey Graham put on his blusterin' shoes yesterday, and said, yet again, that Trump can't fire Mueller, or, you know, he might get mad and do sumfin'.  Other Republicans, like Rubio, have made a few whimpers about McCabe, but...

They're full of shit.  Donald Trump has absolute control of the Republican Party.  Remember Trump's history with Graham and Rubio.  Just to be a turd, Trump publicly released Lindsey Graham's personal cell phone number.  At least it led to this...

Sorry, Lindsey, but John's still not impressed.

Then, there's Rubio.  You know, "Little Marco."

They both consistently came crawling back to Donald, and backed him on everything when it counted.  Have they ever actually challenged him on anything?  Graham called Trump a kook on the campaign trail when he was still nominally a contender for the nomination, and then claimed that nobody had any right to challenge Trump's sanity.  Rubio was similarly brought to heel.

Or, there's Ted Cruz.  Trump called his wife ugly and accused his father of participating in the Kennedy assassination.  Has Cruz stood up to Trump on anything?  Of course not.

But what about Bob Corker?  He stood up to Trump, right?

Until he didn't.  After months of telling everyone he'd vote no on the tax bill, McConnell bought him off, and he went from telling everyone that Trump was debasing the nation to cozying up to Donny.

Credibility.  Thomas Schelling again.  Your threats are not credible if carrying out the threat will hurt you.  You can pull it off in one of a couple of ways:  convince people that you aren't rational, or... just fucking do it once in a while to establish a pattern and reputation.

Nobody in the GOP has a pattern of carrying out threats against Donald Trump, and Trump knows it.  Lindsey Graham's words are empty.  What will Graham do if Trump fires Mueller?

Absolutely nothing.  The same thing every other Republican in the House and Senate will do.  That includes Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, John McCain, Susan Collins and everyone else who has ever postured towards independence.

So we return to the concept of credibility.  What could they do to Trump?  Impeach him for obstruction of justice.  They won't, because the entire party will declare Mueller to be a Democratic Party operative, and the entire investigation to be a fake news witch hunt, but they could impeach him.

Why won't they?  What is the balance of considerations?  Trump is doing damage to the country-- to our basic norms of governance.  The corruption in this administration is beyond anything this country has ever seen, and that includes the Harding administration.  I am pretty inured to corruption, and if I am disgusted...

Leaving Trump in office does serious damage.  To everyone.

Removing Trump does harm to the Republican Party in the short term, creating a replay of 1974 and 1976, with the aftermath of Watergate.

From the Republican perspective, whether you see removing Trump from office as a net loss depends on your balance of considerations.  If you weigh your party's short-term electoral fortunes more heavily than the country, then you would see it is harmful to your own interests to impeach Trump, and you would have no credible threat to remove Trump.  It would follow that Trump could fire Mueller without consequence.

And there it is.

The basic mechanics of a two-party system, which is what you get with a plurality rule electoral system (see Maurice Duverger) is that you cannot threaten your own party's president unless you are willing to hand control to the other party.  If you weigh your own party's control so heavily that nothing outweighs that, then no level of corruption is too high for you to tolerate.

That describes the Republican Party right now.  The entire party.  They will tolerate any level of corruption because the alternative, to them, is unthinkable.  Democrats in power.  If you define the opposing party as the greatest evil imaginable, then you will tolerate any other evil within your own party because any other evil is, by definition, lesser.

Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster's "negative partisanship" strikes again, although whether or not this would hold for Democrats... not everything is symmetric.

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

Otis Taylor, "Mama Don't You Do It," from White African.  Still his best album, in my opinion.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Is Putin blackmailing Trump, revisited? Stormy Daniels edition

Yes, it's time, once again, to revisit the weirdest question in the history of American politics.  Is the President of the United States being blackmailed by Russia?  Once upon a time, this was the kind of question only asked by kooks in the John Birch Society, who were satirized in Dr. Strangelove in the form of General Jack D. Ripper.  Now, it's a serious question.

The answer, unfortunately, is that we still don't know, but here's a quick recap of some relevant facts.

1)  Trump is subject to financial blackmail.  He would pay to keep his financial records a secret, so if Putin could acquire any financial records, Putin would be able to extract something from Trump.

2)  Trump, by the admission of his idiot children, has had a history of business and financial dealings in Russia because no American bank is stupid enough to loan him money.

3)  People in Trump's immediate orbit-- Flynn, Manafort, Don Jr., Papadopoulos, Page, Sessions and more-- have taken a lot of meetings with the Russians.  The Russians have made clear attempts to get inroads into the Trump organization by offering help in the 2016 election.

4)  The Russians actually did intervene with the clear goal of helping Trump.

5)  Everyone in Trump's orbit has a pattern of lying to investigators and to Congress about how much contact they had with the Russians.

6)  Trump has done everything possible to obstruct any investigation, including firing the Director of the FBI, and he has admitted that he thinks that the AG's job is to protect the president, which was why he was pissed about Sessions's recusal (which he probably violated by firing McCabe, but I'm messing up my numbering system).

7)  Trump refuses to criticize Vladimir Putin in direct terms, regularly denies that Russia had any role in meddling in the 2016 election, and generally acts as though Putin is his hero, idol and father, all wrapped up in one.  Given Trump's creepy attitude toward Ivanka... well...

OK, all of that looks bad.  The Steele dossier says that Putin has blackmail material, though.  So, a) what has Putin gotten from Trump, and b) the sexual blackmail part?

"The Trump administration" just imposed some mild sanctions on Russia for the election meddling.  Note the quote marks.  Why the quote marks?  The administration is not simply Donald Trump.  Suppose Putin does have blackmail material on Trump.  Trump's position, then, is analogous to that of an undercover cop.  The cop isn't actually working for the mob, or whoever, but he must participate in the commission of crimes to maintain the cover.  Trump can't give Putin everything, but he has blocked sanctions for a while, and been about as deferential as he can be.

If Putin has blackmail material on Trump, it would be used for something under the table anyway.

This gets into non-falsifiability, and I'll get to that soon.

Then, there's Stormy.  Trump is susceptible to sexual blackmail.  He, through his lawyer, has paid hush money to a porn star, and he is going through a lot of legal maneuvering to try to keep her quiet.  Probability that she is the only one with sexual information about him that he really wants kept under wraps?  Epsilon.  (Remember that epsilon is the Greek letter we use in mathematics for numbers arbitrarily close to zero because in statistics, we don't refer to any probability as zero).  How hard would it be for Putin to find some of this information?  Not very.  Trump is stupid and careless, and the Russians have a long history of this.  Golden showers?  Realistically, probably not, but sexual blackmail for Trump?  With the Stormy Daniels thing?  The likelihood that Putin has something, either financial or sexual on Trump...

He's stupid, careless, corrupt...  As I have written before, the only question for me at this point is whether or not Putin needs it.  Trump is so obviously awed by Putin that it is more effective to use that emotional manipulation than to turn to blackmail, thereby turning Trump into an enemy because you don't want Trump to feel like he is being controlled.  That's still where I come down on this.  Putin probably has dirt, but probably hasn't used it because a) he hasn't needed to, and b) as soon as you use it, you turn the other person into an enemy, and Trump worships Putin.  That's more effective control than blackmail.

Now, let's look through this process.  This isn't social science.  Here's how social science works, even in the limited world of small-n analysis (when you have a small number of cases).  You have a "dependent variable," which is the thing you are trying to explain, like treatment of Russia or other generally hostile foreign powers.  Then, you have a set of "independent variables," which are the things that could potentially explain the "dependent variable."  Those could include things like the potential for blackmail, level of personal affinity for totalitarian rulers, and level of basic competence.

In small-n analysis, what you do is look for a set of cases that are as similar as possible in every respect except for the dependent variable, and the one variable that you are studying.  So, if I want to know whether what's going on is blackmail, in social science terms, then I want to compare cases-- presidencies-- that are similar in terms of personal affinity for totalitarian rulers and basic competence, but different in terms of potential for blackmail, to see if those other cases-- presidencies-- are less deferential to hostile foreign powers.

That's the social science approach.  It is different from the legal approach, and lots of other approaches, but that's how small-n social science analysis works.  In large-n studies (my preference), we use similar reasoning, but we can do a lot more, make more precise probabilistic estimates of the patterns we are observing, control for more variables, etc.

We aren't in that world, though.  More importantly, we are in a world in which Donald Trump is a completely unique case.  We haven't had a president so obviously susceptible to so much blackmail before.  Sexual blackmail?  Arguably, a bunch of presidents would have been susceptible to some of this, but not on the scale of Trump, who is a serial rapist.  Given that, though, and given that it is public knowledge that he is a serial rapist, I really want to know why he is fighting so hard to keep Stormy Daniels quiet.  How much worse can it get?

Just throwin' this out there:  he's impotent, has a small penis, doesn't know what he's doing in bed, etc.  Is that worse than being a rapist?  Hell no, but it would be to Trump, and that tells you something about him.

What about the other independent variables?  Has there been another president so completely in love with totalitarian dictators?  Nope.  That's just Trump.  Has there been another president as completely incompetent?  Nope.  Trump.

There's the problem.  Small-n analysis breaks down if we can't find a comparable case.  We're stuck here, unless there is some revelation of details that we aren't observing, but we can't rely on the claim that everything happens behind closed doors.  Basic rule of science: you can't base your arguments on "non-falsifiable" claims.  Claims must be falsifiable, meaning that if they are wrong, you must be able to find evidence that they are wrong.

We're stuck here.

This looks bad for Trump, though.  He is clearly susceptible to both financial and sexual blackmail.  Putin knows how to acquire and use that information.

Even if Putin has nothing now, though, I will say with certainty that he is working on it.  And that's dangerous.

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

I knew I wanted to use this one, but which version?  "Midnight on the Stormy Deep."  It's a bluegrass classic.  I decided to go with some lesser-known guys, but this is a great album.  Danny Knicely and Will Lee, from Murders, Drownings and Lost Loves: The Roots of Country.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A reminder that what matters frequently isn't what you see in major news outlets

Louise Slaughter died yesterday.  Who, you may ask, was Louise Slaughter, besides someone with a totally badass name?  A total badass, deserving of the name.

She was a Democratic Member of Congress from New York, and for a couple of years, Chair of the Rules Committee.  The Rules Committee in the House of Representatives matters a lot.  It is the instrument by which the majority party in the House controls procedure, and hence, controls outcomes.  How?  Largely by restricting amendments, and such.  What they do is way more complicated, but the simplest and clearest demonstration of what they do is determine who gets to offer what amendments to which bills when bills reach the floor of the House.

What's that, you say?  You have an amendment you'd like to offer to this bill?  Too fuckin' bad.  The Rules Committee says no.  No amendment for you.  The probability of them saying that is far higher if you are in the minority party, obviously, and that's kind of the point.

They can get creative when there are multiple versions of a bill, structure the order of votes, and take advantage of what Richard McKelvey called the "chaos theorem."  Not chaos theory, and no, this has nothing to do with yesterday's post.  The short version of McKelvey's observation is that, when you have a bunch of people with complex preferences, you can get any outcome you want by constructing a sequence of votes in the right order.

The thing about doing so is that the job is haaard.  You have to understand the arcane procedures of the House, know how to use the information provided by your party whip, and be pretty damned slick about what you do.  Chairing the Rules Committee, effectively, is among the more difficult and important jobs in Congress.  I give a lot of credit to Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, and bash the idiots trying to unseat her as harshly as I bash the dipshits who removed Boehner (another truly great Speaker), but you know who also deserves a lot of credit for what the Democrats managed to pass in 2009 and 2010?  Louise Slaughter.  She chaired the Rules Committee.  It is a difficult job.

And one that you never see, unless, oh, I don't know, you read Roll Call every damned day, like I do.  And even then, there's a bunch of reading between the lines because so much of the job is about prevention rather than action.

Today's news?  McCabe got fired.  Why?  Because Donald Trump is a corrupt piece of fucking shit.  Stormy Daniels may have been physically threatened by Trump or his people.  Why?  Same reason.  But you know what?  We already knew the basic stories there, and you know what else?

Trump will pay no price whatsoever for anything.  He never has, and he never will, because he has an entire political party devoted solely to his protection.  Trump goes down, the GOP goes down.  As I keep writing, there is an electoral bomb strapped to Trump and the entire Republican Party is chained to him.  So, they protect him by declaring all charges against him to be "fake news," attack anyone who criticizes him, and everything gets clouded by the general political norm of declaring partisan disputes to be fights between equivalent positions.  Add in Republican congressional opposition to any investigation, much less sanction, and Trump gets away with anything and everything.

No news here.

Amid all of this, though, some aspects of government still continue their "normal" operations.  And you don't see them.  You never saw Louise Slaughter at work, and she mattered.

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

Arlen Roth, "Housafire," from Toolin' Around.  With Duke Robillard as a guest, this is on the bluesier side of country, but Arlen's tele keeps it twangy.

Friday, March 16, 2018

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

Coleman Hawkins, "Think Deep," from The Hawk Flies High.  A tribute, of sorts.

The Chaos Presidency

Another morning, another overload of choices.  I hereby declare Trump's tenure in office to be "The Chaos Presidency."

This morning, of course, I refer to the fact that Mueller has subpoenaed documents from Trump's business operations, which crosses one of Trump's supposed red lines.  Trump looks like he is about to fire HR McMaster, right after firing Tillerson, and amid other firings.  (Remember that McMaster was the guy who replaced Michael Flynn, who has already pled guilty to some charges).  There are some sanctions being imposed on Russia for the election meddling that Trump still sometimes denies occurred, and that the House Republicans say weren't intended to help Trump.  McCabe is maybe being fired for... oh, fuck it.  I can't even try to cover all of the shit that would warrant a post.

Insert my standard Ben Bradlee comment, conveyed to me by my grad school advisor, Nelson Polsby.  Ben Bradlee, as executive editor of the Washington Post, used to say that he wanted everyone to wake up every morning, open up the paper and say, "holy shit!"  It was a journalist's job to call up professors (hi!) and ask us, "holy shit, right prof?  Holy shit?"  Nelson used to say that it was our job to say, "no, not holy shit.  This is normal and typical and within the range of what we expect, because of X, Y and Z," or something like that."

Firing McMaster... that, in and of itself, isn't a true "holy shit" moment, assuming it happens.  Neither is firing McCabe, although it would be closer, if it happens.  However, add up all of the firings, and there is a level of sacredness to that pile of feces that demands worship.  Bow down and pay homage to the excrement, for it is, indeed, divine.  And that's before we get to Mueller subpoenaing Trump's business records.  That's some awesomely blessed defecation.

The swirling chaos (swirly?) of Trump's Presidency moves so quickly that I haven't mentioned the Stormy Daniels lawsuit, that idiotic trade war he's trying to start, or... or... or...  And that brings me to the fundamental question of The Chaos Presidency.  Despite all of this, when was the last time you checked Donny's approval ratings?  Head on over to Gallup, and they're still steady just below 40%.

How's the economy?  Still growing.  Stock market?  Still up.  International scene?  Nuts, but the nukes haven't launched, no new conflagrations, or anything like that...

So, I note the disconnect.  We have the most batshit crazy administration in American history.  The Chaos Presidency, contrasted with... stability.  Genius?  Not so much, but note the stability.  What's the deal?

With respect to Trump's approval ratings, why doesn't anything affect them?  It's all baked in already.  The 39% or whatever of the population who still approve of him a) don't pay attention, b) are mindless partisans, c) worship sociopathic, racist, misogynistic bullies, or d) any combination of the above.  They are pretty much unmovable without an economic collapse or major international catastrophe.  If the economy tanks or something like that, sure.  Trump's numbers can go lower, but beyond that, the chaos doesn't matter because they don't listen, don't care, or both.  And, the numbers can't go higher because anyone who doesn't approve of him now is either a) not paying attention, b) is a mindless partisan in the other direction, c) hates sociopathic, racist, misogynistic bullies, or d) any combination of the above.  Their opposition is locked in, for the same reason.

Then, we have the fascinating observation that The Chaos Presidency has not resulted in, well... chaos.  Why not?  Some thoughts:

1)  The presidency is not as strong as many people think.  It is the focus of public attention, but institutionally constrained.

2)  Trump is too distracted and stupid to direct his idiocy in a damaging way.

3)  The people around Trump have done a reasonable job of preventing him from doing a lot of the stupid shit he wants to do.

4)  The American system of government is more idiot-proof than we ever imagined.

5)  The damage of The Chaos Presidency is in its contribution to long-term degradation rather than in creating sudden crises.

6)  We won't see the problems until faced with an external crisis.

These are just a few morning thoughts.  1 is pretty much solid, in political science terms.  The presidency is the focus of public attention, but institutionally, it is only as strong as Congress lets it be.  2?  Harder.  Stick Trump in front of a tv, and he gets distracted.  He's an idiot child.  Then again, that can do harm too.  3 is very hard to test because it's about what we don't see.  4 is the optimistic version, and it will be put up against 6...  5 is a pretty compelling case.  Trump has made stupid, lazy lying a norm and expectation.  See:  his comments to Trudeau on trade deficits.  Add bullying, racism, misogyny, and too many other evils to list here... he is a piece of shit, and the structure of our political dialog requires lots of people to treat all of his evils as normal and acceptable.  That's... horrific because it normalizes evil, and I don't know a way back.  Then, there's 6.  (Obviously, an important number for this blog).

The eternal question for the presidency, as far as I'm concerned, is this:  October 1962.  How would a person respond?  The Chaos Presidency?  Would this group of fuckwits handle it well?

The true damage of The Chaos Presidency would be seen when faced with an external crises.  We have been lucky so far not to see that.  How long will that luck hold?

I don't know.  Until then, here's Professor Chaos...

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Conor Lamb's victory and Nancy Pelosi

Conor Lamb won.  My standard rule for interpreting special elections applies.  They are weird, and you shouldn't read too much into them.  What happened?  The Democrat won.  Republicans have won a bunch of special elections.  This time, a Democrat won.  I care about patterns, and this was a data point.  To be picky about my grammar, "datum," singular.

Lamb ran as a "moderate," though, whatever that means, and did what Democrats like to do when running in Republican territory-- distance themselves from Democratic leadership.  Does that matter?  The former does, at least a little.  We have plenty of academic studies showing that extremism hurts you in elections, particularly if you are "out of step," to borrow the title of the most famous article.  "Out of Step, Out of Office:  Electoral Accountability and House Members' Voting," by Brandice Canes-Wrone, Dave Brady and John Cogan, from the American Political Science Review, 2002, Volume 96, No. 1.  Here's an ungated copy.

Talking trash about the leaders themselves?  The data are less than clear on that.  In order for that to matter, people would have to know who the leaders are.  If you are reading a political scientist's morning blog, you know who Nancy Pelosi is.  Most people?  Eh...  We actually ask about this stuff in the American National Election Studies survey as a way to measure general political knowledge!  In 2016, the Speaker of the House was Paul Ryan, not Nancy Pelosi.  How many people knew that?  54%.  Back in 2008, though, we had an election during which Pelosi was Speaker, so we asked about that for her!  How many people knew who she was then, at the height of her power and hence fame?  56.5%.

It's gonna be lower now that she hasn't held the Speaker's gavel for 8 years.  We don't bother asking about her anymore.  If I had to guess at how many people have an inkling of who she is right now, I'd put the number at somewhere south of 40%, but that's just a guess.  And keep in mind that a bunch of those people are Democrats.

So, how much can Conor Lamb or other candidates gain by bashing Pelosi?  Not much.  By running as moderates, particularly in districts Trump won?  More.  We have replicated research on that.

But, anecdotes play better than statistics, so guess what gets more attention?  In Roll Call this morning, there's chatter about dumping Pelosi-- or at least running against her in campaigns-- based on the notion that the Democrats couldn't win the House in 2010, 2012, 2014, or 2016 because of her.

No, it doesn't work that way.

I'll call out Pelosi when she fucks up.  Pelosi fucked up pushing for the shutdown, but there really wasn't any damage done.  Overall, though, the idea of pushing her out is built around two fallacies:  1) that the sequence of elections is a reflection of her rather than other political forces, and 2) that they have anyone else with a brain in the caucus.  Yes, she erred with the shutdown, but so did plenty of others in the caucus, and I haven't seen much self-reflection on that point.  If Pelosi goes, who do they pick?

Now, part of this is just room for anti-Pelosi position-taking in the caucus, and... fine.  No harm done to the party.  Remember what happened to the GOP, though.  John Boehner was, by far, the smartest person in the House Republican caucus, and anti-Boehner positioning forced him out, leaving the party with Ryan holding the gavel, and... while Ryan isn't some tea-bagging mouth-breather, let's just say that if he showed up at Boehner's weekly poker game, good ole' John could renovate his house on his winnings.

There's a great quote in the Roll Call article from John Larson about Pelosi.  He thinks Pelosi would tell any Democrat to say whatever they need to say to get elected.

That was pretty much how John Boehner treated his position, until the Freedom Caucus sacked him.  Now, the party and the country are stuck with Paul Ryan.

I still don't think the country fully understands how many times John Boehner saved this country or how brilliant he was as a Speaker.  Nancy Pelosi was a brilliant Speaker too, and I kind of feel like I've read this book before.

To borrow a phrase from my grad school advisor, Nelson Polsby: "Famous sayings migrate into famous mouths."  With that in mind, I don't care who actually came up with this one:  History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

What rhymes with "San Francisco?"

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The firing of Rex Tillerson, and the hanging-on of Steve Mnuchin and James Mattis

I'll wait to comment on the Pennsylvania special election until the results are finalized (to the degree that there will be anything to say...), and for now, oh, poor Rex.

Well, not "poor" in the sense of not having money, and the humiliation he suffered was his own fault for accepting a job in the Trump administration, so it is hard to have any actual sympathy for the guy, but... I really can't think of a way to salvage that word.  Never mind.  Let's all have a good laugh at Rex Tillerson.

Rex earned my heart, to some modest degree, by pointing out what we all knew-- that Trump is a "fucking moron."  Less famous, though, was the supposed "suicide pact" formed by Rex, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin that if one of them were fired, the other two would quit.  Does anyone remember that?  It was big news last fall.  Of course, Mnuchin wound up in his own trouble since then, besides which, he's a useless dolt.  Mattis has since been caught referring to Trump as a "dope" and an "idiot," among other things.  Yet... they haven't gone anywhere!  What's the deal?

Some possibilities:

1)  The story was overblown in the first place.

2)  Mnuchin and Mattis watched Trump bash Tillerson, and threw him overboard already.

3)  Mnuchin and Mattis just stabbed Tillerson in the back.

4)  Mnuchin's trouble already killed the deal, so Mattis just went off on his own.

5)  Tillerson wasn't doing his job, so he got thrown overboard by Mnuchin and Mattis.

This is just a basic set of possibilities.  We can't rule out 1.  Nobody really sat in on meetings between Tillerson, Mattis and Mnuchin anyway.  What about 2?  Tillerson was clearly getting marginalized, and if Mnuchin and Mattis decided that he was a lost cause, then at some point, the agreement may have been altered.  Mnuchin should pray that Mattis doesn't alter the deal any further.  Or maybe the other way around...  Mnuchin kisses Trump's ass more effectively, and in the Trump White House, that counts for more than competence.

3 is only slightly different.  The agreement may have been in effect, as far as Tillerson knew, but then he got fired, by surprise, and now Mnuchin and Mattis are just refusing to hold up their end.  Why?  They don't want to leave.  The point was to threaten Trump not to fire any of them, but if it is costly for any one of them to leave, then it is irrational for any one of them to carry out that threat.  So, Trump wasn't deterred, and he fired Tillerson.  Neither Mnuchin nor Mattis carry out the threat.  Basic failure of deterrence.  See:  Schelling, Thomas.

Then, there's 4.  You know how Steve Mnuchin is kind of a turd, and faced plenty of trouble on his own?  If the agreement already broke down because of that shit with his wife, then it was already null and void when Trump fired Tillerson anyway.

Aaaaand finally, 5.  This one is getting a bunch of discussion.  Was Tillerson competent as Sec. State?  I find it difficult to tell because the State Department is, shall we say, not prioritized by Trump.  He couldn't do his job while being undercut by Trump, but that's separate from whether or not he could have done his job without having been undercut.  Did he do his job?  No.  Could he have done his job?  Probably not.  He did a lot of stupid shit, but this is a harder question than some have portrayed it to be.

Still... he did suck.  The only one with a brain in this trio is Mattis.  Mnuchin is making an ass of himself, Tillerson is, at best, unable to function under Trump... so why the hell should Mattis quit?  And if Mattis doesn't quit, why should Mnuchin?

What's really going on?  I'm not sure.  But, it's always fun to try to game this out.

Bye, Rex.  Thanks for giving me permission to type this:  Donald Trump is a "fucking moron" (source: Tillerson, Rex).

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Russia and Bush v. Gore

The House Republicans have put out their statement on Trump and collusion.

I could have told you what they were going to say on November 9, 2016.  With that in mind, it's time to reminisce about Bush v. Gore.  Remember Bush v. Gore?  In the 2000 election, it all came down to Florida.  Shut up about the "popular vote."  How many times do I have to tell you?  There's no such thing as "the popular vote."  The issue in Bush v. Gore was the set of vote tallies in a handful of counties in Florida.  Gore wanted them recounted using a specific standard.  He wasn't asking for a full statewide recount, though, and that weakened his case significantly when trying to pose the matter as an "equal protection" issue.

Anyway, in a famous 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court halted the recounts and ruled that the state was to certify the results declaring Bush the winner of Florida's electoral votes, ruling against Gore's request for county-specific recounts, but what made the ruling so famous was its naked cowardice.  Here's how you can tell that Justices don't have any confidence in the substantive argument they are making:  they tell you they don't want it to be used as precedent in any future case.  That's what the majority did.  They just halted the recount, let Dubya's brother and his hack of a Sec. State declare him the winner, and told everyone that they knew their reasoning was so flimsy it should never be used again lest it be used to hurt a candidate they didn't want to hurt in the future.  Bull-fucking-shit.

Irony:  going ahead with Gore's recount still would have led to a Bush victory!  You missed that part, in all likelihood.  A statewide recount, under another standard, might have given Gore the victory, and a stronger legal case, but Gore was an idiot.  And we don't let idiots into the White House...  Right?

The bigger issue, really, was the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, designed by Theresa LePore (a Democrat!).  The ballot was stupidly structured, and made careless people think they were voting for Gore when they were actually voting for Pat Buchanan.  That cost Gore the state, and the Presidency.  Period.

I get twitchy about political analogies, but here's one.  Imagine a marathon.  One guy is clearly ahead, and clearly about to put his foot over the finishing line first.  Then, a window air conditioning unit falls right in front of him, and the incident lets the other guy, clearly behind, get a victory.  What do you do?  Keep in mind that, given the distance, there was no fucking way the other guy was going to win, sans air conditioner fall.

The political system basically just declared Bush the winner.

How did the Republican Party address it?  They stopped talking about it.  Why?  Because George W. Bush didn't care how he won.  He just cared that he won.  He had no hang-ups about the bullshit "popular vote," the Supreme Court's controversial ruling, the butterfly ballot, or any of that.  He was President.  That's it.  Done deal.

Contrast that with Trump.  Why is the House still denying, not just collusion, but the idea that Russia was helping Trump at all?  Trump's ego.  Trump doesn't only care that he won-- he cares how he won.  In fact, that's the only thing that matters to him.  To Trump, a presidential election is not an event involving 100+ million people.  It is a one-on-one contest involving precisely two people.  Trump defeats his enemy.  Period.  To acknowledge a role for anyone else is to detract from Trump's victory, and hence bruise his ego, and so he continues to deny that Russia was even involved, leading to that ridiculous spectacle of the House putting out a report denying that Russia even wanted to help Trump, with Tom Rooney wondering how that conclusion wound up in the report.

It wound up in the report because the purpose of the report was not just to declare Trump blameless, but to fluff him.  Stormy is otherwise occupied.

Had this been handled the way the party dealt with Bush v. Gore, the party would have said, "what's past is past, let's deal with Russia and move on, but Trump is President now."  It would have been possible to acknowledge Russia's actions, and even their intent, and still say that there is no way to undo it, but the challenge is figuring out the next step.  But, that would have required a President whose goal is to be President rather than just win presidential elections and have his ego fluffed.

Imagine Trump in 2000...

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

I've been meaning to use the original version of this for a while, but it isn't on youtube.  Today, though, this version is perfect.  Goran Ivanovic and Fareed Haque recorded "The Walls of the White City," on Seven Boats.  Here, Goran plays the piece with a Russian cellist, Ian Maksin.  Seven Boats is a great album, but hey, this lets me throw in the Russian assassination thing, along with the general theme of... well, I'm not being subtle here.

Monday, March 12, 2018

No, teachers still aren't going to get guns, regardless of what DeVos says

Several times since Trump's earlier statements, I have made clear my position that teachers and school officials are unlikely to be armed.  However, in my most recent post on the topic, I argued that the mere fact of Trump advocating the policy put it in "the Overton window," and the political system then responds by treating it as a more viable policy than it is.

We are now seeing the effects of that.  Betsy DeVos is... not someone we would normally take seriously.  She was very nearly denied a cabinet position because even her own party came close to recognizing that she isn't qualified.  She has announced plans to assist schools that want to arm teachers and officials.  Remember that not only do schools not want to let teachers carry guns, they don't want to let Betsy DeVos in their doors!

This is a shiny thing.  This is a distraction.  You can't force a teacher or administrator to carry a gun when they don't want to do so, and the proportion of teachers and school officials disposed to carry firearms is vanishingly small.  Telling teachers they are allowed to carry guns would be like telling members of the Trump family that they are allowed to talk to Robert Mueller.  See my point?  Put this at the school-level, and the idea gets quashed, except in places where they hand out Darwin Awards like Boy Scout merit badges.

Notice how effectively this has shifted the debate, though.  Betsy DeVos continues pushing the arm-the-teachers idea, and that defines the gun policy debate through context.

Just because it won't happen doesn't mean it is irrelevant.

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

Snooks Eaglin, "Baby, You Can Get Your Gun!" from the album of the same name.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Policy that mattered while you weren't watching (healthcare edition)

Remember all of the health insurance sabotage?

Yeah, I know, that means you have to tear yourself away from the President getting sued by a porn star about the hush money he paid her, the fact that we don't know if there will be talks with North Korea, the fact that the President just started a trade war because he can, Mueller's ongoing investigation and...

Damn, it's hard to keep up.

Anyway, if you recall, first Trump decided to cut off the cost-sharing subsidies.  Health insurance companies that get expensive customers are supposed to have money allocated to them to even out the costs and balance out the risks, but the ACA was sloppily written, and there was an error in which the money wasn't properly appropriated.  Obama made the payments anyway, but congressional Republicans weren't about to fix the error, and Trump decided it would be more fun to sabotage the markets and try to crash the companies that get expensive customer bases, 'cuz, you know, Trump is all about following the letter of the law.  Then, the tax bill repealed the individual mandate, which required healthy people to buy insurance, making it possible for health insurance companies to turn a profit even though they are required to insure the sick people.

So, if you run an insurance company, you are required by law to insure the sick people, the healthy people are no longer required to participate in the insurance markets, and the cost-sharing subsidies are cut off.  That's a lot of sabotage, and it was intended to crash the insurance markets so that the GOP could use the crash as a justification for a full repeal.  That was the reason.  Period.

Some Republicans didn't like the idea.  Example:  Susan Collins.  But she wasn't alone.

When Trump cut off the cost-sharing subsidies, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) started working with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) on a bill to restore them by, among other things, fixing the screw-up in the ACA that gave the president the power to do what Trump did.  The Alexander-Murray bill was never really going anywhere, though.

Then came the tax bill.  Once the individual mandate repeal was proposed for inclusion in the tax bill, that was it.  It was going to happen, as I wrote consistently.  That brings me to the ever-impressive idiocy of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

Collins claimed to hate the idea of that much sabotage for the health insurance markets.  She said she would only vote for the tax bill-- which then included an individual mandate repeal-- if she got a promise of action on Alexander-Murray or something like it (she had her own proposals).  She voted yes, in exchange for that promise.

What did I write?  I wrote that she got conned.  See, for example, here.  Murkowski negotiated for something real, and got it, but Susan Collins got conned.  Alexander-Murray was never going anyway.

So... let's check in on Alexander-Murray.  How's that pulse?

There are a few negotiations going on between the House, Senate and White House on options for restoring the cost-sharing subsidies, and they are all collapsing completely right now.  If I had to bet, I'd bet that we don't even see a vote on any of this.  As predicted.

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

Crooked Still, "Look On And Cry," from Hop High.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trump and Kim-- what could go wrong?

Donald Trump is not a consistent person.  He could back out of the meeting with Kim Jong Un, but for now, let's work with the assumption that this meeting of... let's call them "minds," will occur.  What could go wrong?

Remember those phone calls between Trump and Nieto, and with Turnbull?  Here is a link to the transcripts, in case you forgot.

Basically, the phone calls play a bit like this scene from Bad Santa, except that neither Nieto nor Turnbull are ever allowed to ask whether or not Trump is just fucking with them.

What we learned from the Nieto and Turnbull phone calls-- and really, was obvious all along-- is that Trump has no business having high-level discussions with world leaders.  I did a longer write-up here, when the transcripts were originally released, but Trump is in over his head.

So, what could go wrong?  Realistically, he won't be allowed to sign anything.  His handlers won't let him.  The worst case scenario is a leaked recording or transcript of Trump being Trump-y.  He'll back away from any supposed commitment that would undermine national security, so you don't actually have to worry about that.  This is the upshot of Trump having the consistency and political fortitude of jello on everything except his racism, which won't really be an issue here unless he starts doing racist impressions of Asians, and he'd never do that, right?  Right?

Fuck.  Who made that man a President?

Anyway, that aside, the likely worst case scenario is another Nieto-type moment.  Trump acts like Trump because he's Trump.  Some documentation gets released, Trump looks like a dipshit, Kim has a good laugh, the rest of the world wonders what the fuck is in our water and whether or not General Ripper was right, and that's it.

For anything beyond that, for an actual policy change, you'd have a lot of people involved besides Donny.  Would he do something stupid?  Sure, but he can't read, and reading is fundamental.  I think I saw that on tv somewhere, but if it ain't on Fox News, it doesn't exist to Donny.  There is a distinction between having the wool pulled over his eyes by Kim and imposing tariffs-- simplicity.  Any formal agreement between the US and North Korea that involves any complexity involves people other than Donny.  Remove him from the decision-making process, and his meeting with Kim becomes nothing more than typical Trumpian spectacle.

Should a president meet with North Korea, without preconditions?  The Republican Party's position used to be that meeting with a country was a reward for doing what we want.  Now, Trump is President, and he's being Trump-y.  The party's position must change for the sake of Trump-defense.  Mine doesn't.  Trump is unlikely to accomplish anything, but unlikely to do much in the way of policy damage.  Mostly, this is just a higher-stakes version of the Nieto and Turnbull calls in that he should expect everything to be leaked, and look like a twit, but he always looks like a twit.

He's Trump.

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

Not the Drive-By Truckers today... The Mother Truckers!  "I'll Meet You There," from Let's All Go To Bed.

Friday, March 9, 2018

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

I really wanted to use Meeting at Termini's Corner, but I overuse Roland Kirk.  Then, I remembered that TJ Kirk did a version!  The original is found on Kirk's Domino, with TJ Kirk covering it on If Four Was One.  (It's not just a Shatner reference-- they play covers of Thelonious Monk, James Brown and Roland Kirk).

Calling "stupidity" by its name

Obviously, this will be a post about Donald Trump.  Before I get there... Keith Krehbiel.  Very smart guy.  Perhaps even a genius.

I study Congress.  Parties matter.  Nearly everybody who studies Congress understands that parties are important in Congress.  You know who argues otherwise?  Keith Krehbiel.  He wrote a famous book (famous by academic standards, anyway) called Pivotal Politics.  The gist of it is that you can understand Congress without looking at parties because parties are basically just labels that get put on ideological coalitions.  Ignore the labels, focus on the ideology.  If you understand everyone's ideological locations in the left-right dimension, you understand everything you need to know, or at least so much that anything unexplained is relatively unimportant.  Parties are not that important because they are basically just byproducts of the liberal-conservative divide.

Parties don't matter.  So says Keith Krehbiel.

For those of us who study Congress, Keith Krehbiel is that obstinate, contrarian, frustrating... but annoyingly smart guy who forces the discipline forward by disagreeing in the smartest way.  In case you can't tell, I admire the guy.  He's wrong wrong wrong, but I admire the guy.  Even though he writes things that are very obviously wrong.

On the other hand, some jackass who barely pays attention to politics?  If that jackass tells you that parties are an illusion?  That jackass probably has no clue what he is talking about.

You can be wrong and still be intelligent.  You can be wrong about something obvious and still be intelligent.  You can be wrong about something that everyone else gets right, and still be intelligent.

There is a bar, though.  The real bar is the manner in which you construct your argument.  Krehbiel, while wrong, constructs his arguments in thoughtful, coherent ways.  Your drunken, jackass harasser does not.

When someone expresses an idea that has been debunked, when do you grant that person consideration?  That person very quickly needs to pass at least one hurdle:  present an idea that is new and different, and must be considered because of its novelty, or have credentials that mean you must listen further.

Donald Trump went ahead with the tariffs yesterday.  They were incoherently imposed because... he's Donald Trump.  Can he pass either test?

He loves to tell you about his degree from Wharton, but that doesn't pass scrutiny once you understand that his family had to buy his way in, and he had to transfer from Fordham.

Really, though, argument by authority is bullshit.  Ideas should stand on their own, regardless of who makes them.  Otherwise, no intellectual endeavor would ever be able to progress because we would be stuck with enshrined dogma.

This is where Trump's words do him in.  His arguments for tariffs are zero-sum, mercantilist bullshit, debunked centuries ago.

I call him "stupid" because he says things that no intelligent, educated person can say today.  If you take any modern economics and describe trade in zero-sum terms, it means you didn't learn anything.

Inability to learn.  Is there a better definition of "stupidity?"

Call it by its name.  Stupidity.

Keith Krehbiel gets to be wrong about everything regarding Congress and still be called a genius.  Donald Trump is just an idiot.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Immigration and federalism... (WAKE UP!!!)

Federalism is not boring.

OK, it kind of is.  It isn't as though I have chosen to spend my life studying it, but it is important.  It is, however, the kind of issue that most people don't understand, and that is subject to Miles's law:  where you stand depends on where you sit.

The AG's office is suing California over "sanctuary cities."  Short version:  immigration policy is set at the federal level, and Sessions claims that the state of California and cities within it are violating principles of federalism by blocking implementation of federal policy.

Good, ole' Miles.  Not Miles Davis, nor even Miles Tackett.  OK, you've never heard of that guy, but he's a pretty cool musician too.  Buddy Miles?  Played drums for Hendrix in the "Band of Gypsies?"  No?

OK, back on topic.  Miles's law.  People don't really have process preferences most of the time, so they have preferences over jurisdiction that depend largely on their institutional settings.  Consider Sessions's other hobby horse:  marijuana.  Sessions was a big fan of the KKK, until he found out they smoked weed.  Helluva guy, our AG.  Under the Obama administration, in a state with a more conservative government, if you were a liberal or libertarian, you probably preferred federal control.  Then, when you have Sessions as AG, if you have more liberal or libertarian state policies, you prefer state control.  That's Miles's law.

People don't have real preferences over federalism.

So, here we are with immigration.  For the most part, immigration is handled at the federal level.  It's not like we have checkpoints at state lines, or anything like that.  So, how happy are you when states and localities undercut federal policy?

Who would Clinton have picked as AG?  I don't know, but let's say Elizabeth Warren, just to have a name.

If you had real process preferences over federalism and immigration policy, you would think of AG Warren being undercut on immigration policy by... I dunno... some Joe Arpaio type (his ass would be in prison) the same way as Sessions being undercut by Jerry Brown.

So... is that how you think?

Probably not.  Miles, man, Miles.  Tomorrow is jazz, and everyone knows Hendrix.  Here's Miles Tackett.  He's the son of Fred Tackett, from Little Feat (as in, Lowell George).

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

I can't deal with the news overload, so I'm writing about the literal slime mold at Hampshire College

The President's economic advisor is walking out because Donny is a mercantilist moron starting a trade war over... something.  The President is being sued by a porn star with the stage name of "Stormy Daniels," to whom he had paid hush money, because of some sort of hush money breach of contract.  We don't know what's happening with North Korea.  One of Trump's former campaign advisors is inviting arrest and claiming that Mueller has something on Trump.  There's been wackiness in Texas, and I... have short-circuited.  Oh, and Kellyanne Conway violated the Hatch Act, according to a formal investigation, but c'mon, nothing will happen because, really...


Did you know that there is an actual, literal slime mold on the faculty at Hampshire College?  No, Lawrence Krauss moved from CWRU to Arizona State, but I can see how you might get confused.

It is a filthy, creeping mold without a brain, and yet still does research!  Over the last couple of days, it has been making the news rounds.  More than I have!  Apparently, if I want news attention, I should lobotomize myself, and turn into a brainless, creeping mold.

As for papers, why not have computer programs randomly generate bullshit papers?  Is that better or worse than a slime mold?  You know about this one, right?  That's right.  Back in 2005, a group of MIT students created a computer program to spit out text, and got a paper accepted to a conference, because, oh fuck it, academia is bullshit anyway.

The article I linked references Alan Sokal, who famously pranked the field of "cultural studies" by writing the most bullshit-laden "article" in history, just to see if their "journal" would accept it, and... they did!  Bunch of fuckwits...  Want to read the article?  Here's a link.

So, a slime mold on campus?  How much worse can it get?  I, for one, welcome our new slime mold overlords.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Why I am extremely skeptical of North Korea giving up nukes

Is... this happening?  I doubt it.  Why?

One word:  Libya.

Why didn't I give two words?  Because there are too many variations on the spelling of "Muammar Gaddafi," and I didn't want to get into a whole, big thing about it.

Remember Saddam Hussein?  At least we can agree on the spelling of his name.  As of 1998, he had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.  Then, he kicked out the UN weapons inspectors.  Chemical and biological weapons, though, need to be maintained, and he didn't maintain them.  He just wanted domestic insurgents and opponents in Iran to think he had those weapons so that he would be safe from revolt, but he figured that if we didn't have the physical evidence of the weapons, we wouldn't topple him.  It was a shell game.  It didn't work.  In 2003, the Bush administration sent back in weapons inspectors, and Hussein played his shell game figuring that he could act shifty in order to keep the Iraqi Shi'ites convinced that he had enough to destroy them and prevent a revolt, but without physical evidence, he wouldn't get invaded.  But, we invaded anyway.

In the aftermath, Gaddafi decided it was time to start playing nice.  For a time, it looked like Bush's strategy would actually get the scumbags around the world to fall in line.

Ummm.... how'd that work out for him?

Supposedly, Kim Jong Un is willing to talk about giving up nuclear weapons.  Don't get your hopes up.  Basic deterrence:  Kim knows that the only thing keeping him safe from attack is the fact that he has nukes, and his domestic political stability (yes, dictators have to worry about the threat of being toppled) comes from the perception that he is maintaining international strength.

If he gives up nukes, what happens?  Two threats open up:  threats of attack from outside, and threats of being toppled from within as he is seen to give up North Korea's strategic advantage.

What's going on?  A few possibilities:

1)  Kim Jong Un is going to start pulling a Lucy Van Pelt.  Denuclearization is that football, taken away at the last minute just to fuck with us.

2)  What's the demand?  It could be something just too high for anyone to accept, in which case, see 1.

3)  The ever-moving demand.  See 1.

4)  Count on Trump to screw it up by saying or doing something stupid.

5)  This is all just bullshit.

OK, with that said, let's consider a few things.  North Korea is dirt-poor.  Their economic system isn't functional, international sanctions can work when imposed nearly worldwide...


I wrote that series a while back on "Political science & craziness."  Trump is nuts.  He might blow them up.  Kim is rational.  If he thinks Trump is crazier, there is a chance that he is backing down.  There is a non-zero chance that this is legit, and a response to Trump being fucking nuts.  Here's your obligatory link to Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  If you can convince your adversary that you are crazy, and willing to carry out self-destructive threats, you have a bargaining advantage, and you can get people to give you things they wouldn't otherwise give you...

I may be linking back to that, and the "Political science & craziness" series, a lot soon.  As Trump loves to say, "we'll see what happens."

Default, though?  What happens is nothing.  The strategic advantages of having nuclear weapons are too great to sacrifice, and Trump seems distracted right now by his trade war.  At least those don't leave anything glowing in the dark.

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

I was originally going to go with something Italian again, and then the North Korea news broke, but I don't know anything about Korean music.  But, I realized I could connect this to Libya!  So, here's some Tuareg music.  A concert by Tinariwen.  The Tuareg are a nomadic group who travel between Northern Mali, Algeria and Libya.  They had a... weird... relationship with Gaddafi.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Tariffs and the politics of the unknown

Back to an old theme today.  Uncharted waters.

As I scan the questions in the National Election Studies survey, the 2016 survey included nothing about tariffs directly.  The closest the survey comes is a set of questions on trade agreements, and how good or bad it is to increase trade with other countries.  So, for example, 45.6% claimed to think it was good to increase trade with other countries, 20.1% claimed to think it was bad, and the remaining 34.3% did not claim to stake a position.  Notice my wording.  "Claimed."  Trade policy is a classic example of an issue about which voters have what Phil Converse called, "non-attitudes."  Most survey respondents will answer questions as though they have firm opinions because most people don't want to admit how little they think about politics and how little they know, but on issues like trade policy, most people just don't know very much.

So, for all of my mercantilism-bashing, trade policy is kind of obscure, and if you don't actually understand economics, you won't really have an opinion.  The answers described above made it look like the country was pro-trade, but I can twist the wording around and get other answers.  I'm sneaky that way.

Americans aren't intrinsically pro-trade, then, sad as that state of affairs is for the state of economics education in the country.  What happens, then, if Trump really gets his tariff-based trade war?

We haven't had one in a while.

In terms of economics, we know what happens.  They're bad.  That has direct implications for public opinion because a bad economy hurts the president and the president's party, but there are other implications that aren't necessarily clear.  The GOP gets potentially divided.  Since Trump locked up the GOP nomination, the party has rallied behind him on basically everything, even though most of the party understands how fucking stupid he is, and how particularly stupid trade wars are.  So...

Case 1)  A united GOP behind Trump.  Republicans at the electoral level take unified signals from GOP elites that they are now pro-tariff, anti-trade, and this becomes part of the party orthodoxy.  What gets more complicated is that Bernie is just as fucking stupid as Trump on trade.  More on this shortly.

Case 2)  A divided GOP.  In that case, Trump probably doesn't get his trade war, and he moves on to some other impulse.  It is possible that the basic, capitalist impulses of the Republican Party could put an end to this nonsense.  Then again, they have indulged every other Trump impulse, so...

Case 1 is obviously the more interesting possibility, and it plays out in one of two ways.  It could mess with the party cleavages because there are plenty of people in the Democratic Party who oppose trade.  Unlike Trump, they aren't mercantilists.  Sanders is a self-identified socialist, not a mercantilist.  There are many forms of idiocy.  There could be a unified GOP with a divided Democratic Party.  Result?  The US just becomes a protectionist mess of a country.

However, if Trump gets the entire GOP to become protectionist, that could push the Democratic Party to become the free trade party by default, and we have a new party cleavage, with trade becoming a new component of liberalism-conservatism.  Free trade becomes a tenet of liberalism and protectionism becomes a component of conservatism.

The definitions of liberalism and conservatism change over time, and they do so as opinion leaders change them by constructing coalitions.  Good book:  Political Parties and Political Ideologies in America, by Hans Noel.  Yes, he was a co-author of The Party Decides, but I'm talking about his good book.

My point is that there are a lot of possibilities for what happens to parties and coalitions if Trump really does push through this tariff bullshit.  Economically... no.  It'll be bad because tariffs and trade wars are stupid.  Politically, though, lots of stuff could happen.  We don't know.

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

Tab Benoit, "Bring It On Home To Me," from Brother To The Blues

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Trump and a check-in on the "burn it down" theory

As long as I am revisiting old posts and old topics, a student recently reminded me of this.

Before Trump won, I posted something about what I called the "burn it down" theory of the presidency and the country.  The idea was that Trump might be so obviously horrendous, and such a failure that the result would be not just a repudiation of Trump, but a revitalization of the left, and push the country leftward, in the same way that the Great Depression led to the rise of FDR and the New Deal.

How's that going?

As I wrote recently, my political scientist colleagues in the Executive Politics section of the APSA are tripping balls on something, having declared Trump a worse President than James Buchanan, but he is, in fact, terrible.  Despite that, I note our distinct lack of being aflame.

The economy is good, we are not in any new wars, existing wars have not deteriorated... and...

What was I saying about wars?

Damn, has that stupid, fucking trade war started yet?  Trump is pretty bad.  Still, let's go searching for the fires to see what's been a-burnin'...

1)  Empiricism.  Amid the ashes has risen the vile, unkillable revenant of solipsism.

2)  Checks and balances.

3)  The health insurance individual markets, but it's a slow burn.

4)  The tax code, but like 3, it's a slow burn.

5)  America's ability to engage with other countries.

These, as I see them, are the main things we have lost.  Individual policies have hurt individuals and groups, but in terms of a burn-it-down assessment, I'm focused on the big picture.

Starting at the end, how much to we lose with 5?  Really, it's hard to say because it is a matter of what we could have gotten but can't because Trump is an international laughing stock.  Hell, Malcolm Turnbull-- a US ally-- does a Trump impression!

The new tax bill...  As I wrote repeatedly, I'm not opposed to tax cuts.  I'm not opposed to corporate tax cuts.  I can make a case for true tax reform, but the GOP's tax bill was stupidly written because they didn't bother to go through the normal legislative process of committee hearings, mark-up, debate, amendment, etc.  Instead, they wrote it in secret, at the last minute, literally by hand in the margins of the pages, without thinking through anything, and wound up with an infinitely exploitable, and downright stupid bill.  Tax policy is hard.  They fucked up, but the consequences of that are long-term, not short term.  And yes, Trump's anti-intellectual bullshit is a big part of this.

Similarly, the consequences of GOP sabotage of the health insurance markets will be slow to develop.  Removing the individual mandate without taking away the Obamacare regulations on pre-existing conditions is objectively stupid.  It is sabotage.  The pre-Obamacare system was just an ideological choice.  If you prefer less government support, then fine.  That's an ideological choice.  Removing the mandate while leaving the regulations in place, though, requires the insurance companies to cover the sick people without forcing the healthy people to buy into the system in a low profit margin business.  That could very well be a death spiral, or at the very least, cause a serious rise in premiums.  Add to that Trump's decision to cut off the cost sharing subsidies and you have a shit-ton of sabotage, intended to make the health insurance markets crash.  They couldn't repeal Obamacare, so they are just trying to turn everything to shit.  But it won't happen immediately.  Again, slow burn.

The thing about the slow burn is that it doesn't give you what I called, in my previous post, the Ra's al Ghul model.  In order for Trump's Presidency to be such a disaster that it pushes everything to the left, it has to be a clear disaster for conservatism, and the slow burn disaster of sabotaging the insurance markets and fucking with the tax code out of laziness and stupidity... that doesn't do it because the point at which the consequences materialize isn't a point at which Trump is necessarily in power.

Then, there's the fire versus acid issue.

1 and 2 are far more dangerous, in the long term, than anything Trump is doing on policy, and they won't lead to any public repudiation of Trump or the GOP because they operate through slow erosion.  Acid, not fire.  Or, hell, water.  Given enough time, the flow of water will break down damn near anything.

I am an empiricist.  I study empirical data, and I live in a world of facts.  I take the "science" part of "political science" seriously.  The application of the scientific method to the study of politics.  Donald Trump lies so frequently, so casually, and so egregiously that he has broken the country's ability to handle the concept of lying.  If anyone tried to call out every Trump lie, that person would do nothing but explain the nature of every Trump lie, and probably never get a break to do things like sleep.  Trump, though, is aided by a party that has decided to back him no matter what, and a media operation consisting of Fox News, talk radio and other institutions that have been trying to undercut the concept of objective truth for decades.  Donald Trump didn't invent birtherism.  He just rode it to the top of the Republican Party, but the fact that he could tells you something about the structure of the GOP and what constitutes "information" in that party.

I don't know if there is any coming back from this.  Once enough people get used to hearing only things that comport with their predispositions, getting them to accept information that doesn't is... difficult.  Trump is an idiotic, lying criminal, and quite possibly a traitor.  Given how many years of pro-Trump propaganda the Trumpists have been hearing, though, how would one ever correct the propaganda?

Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth has done some of the most depressing research around.  Try to correct people's incorrect beliefs, and the more politically involved they are, the more your attempts to correct their false beliefs will backfire.

Then there's the total breakdown of checks and balances.  The GOP has made it clear that they are uniformly opposed to any checks on Trump.  Devin Nunes stands out as a particularly stupid and craven liar whose goals are to defend Trump, smear anyone who attacks Trump, and do so in the laziest way possible, but the entire GOP has his back, and the entire GOP has Trump's back.

Eventually, Robert Mueller will conclude his investigation, but let's be blunt about this.  Trump fired James Comey in order to shut down Comey's investigation into Russia-related matters, and admitted it on national tv.  If that had been a Democrat, that Democrat would be not just impeached, and not just convicted in the Senate, but in prison by now for the Lester Holt interview alone.

The GOP will not allow any checks on Trump.

Will the Democrats allow any checks on any Democratic President?  Do checks and balances only exist in divided government now?

Time for everyone to read Politics By Other Means, by Ginsberg & Shefter.  That doesn't count as checks and balances, though.

We no longer have a system of checks and balances.  Those are gone.

This is some serious damage.  Does it move politics to the left, though?  Nope.  Slow burn, or erosion, or acid, or something like that.  But, it doesn't move anything leftward.  It just destroys.

Putin wasn't backing Jill Stein and Donald Trump (same thing) to move domestic US politics to the left.

Make no mistake.  This is bad.  Very bad.  Without a fact-based discussion of politics, and without the capacity for checks and balances, we have some real problems, long-term, and that's far worse in the long-term than the sabotage to the health insurance markets and the idiocy introduced to an already stupid tax code.  Add to that the fact that our President is such an international joke that other world leaders literally do impressions of him, and yeah, Trump is doing real damage.

What he is not doing, though, is burning things down to such a degree that politics will shift left.

Then again, he might start a trade war!  That could bring on a new great depression!  So, who knows?

Then again, he might launch nukes, and none of this could matter.

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

Jon Stickley, "Slow Burn," from Maybe Believe.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Valence and presidential intelligence revisited

Throughout the 2016 election, I wrote regularly about the role of Valen's* valence characteristics.  Donald Stokes (1963), "Spatial Models of Party Competition," published in the American Political Science Review.  Stokes distinguished between candidates' locations in a policy dimension-- the left-right thing-- and their capacity to provide "valence" outcomes, which are the things that everyone just wants, like a strong economy, national security, etc.

Over time, spatial theorists have taken the concept of the valence issue-- like a strong economy-- and turned it into a valence trait-- traits that voters just want.  Voters supposedly just want candidates who are honest, competent, etc.

Stop laughing.

No, really.  It stopped being funny.  OK, you probably weren't laughing anyway.  It really stopped being funny long ago.

The 2016 presidential election made a mockery of the concept of valence characteristics, and I wrote rather a lot about that in my post-election wrap-up in the "Assessing democracy..." series.  One of the questions that has come up since, though, is... so what?

Donald Trump is not smart.  He is, to use a phrase I have used on multiple occasions, the dumbest motherfucker in political history.  What consequences have we seen?  The economy has continued growing, he hasn't launched any nukes (thank you General Mattis!), legislation, such as it is, has been boilerplate Republican legislation rather than anything truly Trump-y.  Does it matter that Trump is the dumbest motherfucker in political history?

The President of the United States is now pushing a trade war.  He has asserted that trade wars are good, and easy to win.  Because he is the dumbest motherfucker in political history.  What will happen with this idiotic, mercantilist bullshit?  I don't know.

Shielding the country and the world from the effects of Donald Trump's stupidity has been a monumental effort from the White House staff and Congress.  And neither are filled with the best and the brightest.

Here is a brief list of the kinds of stupid things Donald Trump might do in a snit, without even bothering to list launching nukes.

1)  Refusing to sign a debt ceiling increase.

2)  Refusing to sign appropriations, thereby shutting down the government.

3)  Ordering the deployment of the military for no particular reason under the War Powers Resolution.

4)  "John Marshall Roberts has made his decision.  Now let him enforce it."

5)  Start an actual purge of the FBI.

This is just me spit-balling.  Imagine what would happen if Trump actually put his feeble brain to work coming up with something truly, monumentally stupid to do?  Never underestimate the power of idiocy to surprise you.

The analogy I make here is to chess.  If you are a good chess player, you can't actually predict what a bad chess player will do because at any given point, there are too many possible moves to consider, and your mental process disregards the stupid moves that the dipshit brain will think are brilliant.  Hence, you spend your time examining the intelligent moves, comparing the various decent moves to each other and preparing responses to them while the dipshit surprises you with a move of such spectacular, glorious numbskullery that you are caught off-guard until you realize just how moronic the move is.

Unfortunately, this isn't chess, and the dipshit making the move can screw us all over with the move rather than just giving us a way to beat him.

Yay, democracy!

Our President is a mercantilist.  A mercantilist!

Throughout this post (and regularly on this blog), I have referred to Donald Trump as an idiot, a moron, a numbskull, and... the dumbest motherfucker in political history.

The most scathing of these insults is that I have called him... a mercantilist.  As I wrote yesterday, there is no excuse for anyone to embrace mercantilism today.  It was debunked centuries ago, and remains the economic equivalent of flat-eartherism.

Our President is a moron mercantilist (yeah, that's worse).  So far, we have been spared the worst possible damage of his stupidity.  There is only so long, though, that the great, sucking vortex of his lack of brainpower can be kept in check.  Intelligence matters, and our President is stupid!

Don't mind me.  I'm just having another Frank Grimes moment.

*Yes, that's Walter White.

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

It's been a while since I have used my favorite cheat for Saturday's music post-- the Drive-By Truckers.  Here they are with "The Great Car Dealer War," from a collection of extras called The Fine Print, because even Patterson Hood's "not good enough for an album" material is still awesome and makes every other writer around sound pathetic by comparison.   OK, not every other writer.  Mike Cooley is better, but Mike Cooley is his partner in the Drive-By Truckers.  Maybe Jason Isbell, but he used to be a member of the Drive-By Truckers...

Yes, there is a band called the "Drive-By Truckers," and they are serious writers and serious musicians.

Friday, March 2, 2018

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

Rahsaan Roland Kirk, "One Nation," from Blacknuss.  The "Rahsaan" part tells you that this is later-period Kirk.  Not necessarily better, but different.  He was always great.

In case you forgot, Trump is an economic flat-earther

Remember mercantilism?  It was that economic model debunked by Adam Smith.  The Wealth of Nations.  Published in... 1776!  Love that year!  If you don't love 1776, you hate America!  (It's going to be some Roland Kirk for tonight's jazz post).

Mercantilism is mostly dead.  Why?  Because it's stupid.  And if you believe in it today, you're stupid.  Kind of like a flat-earther.

You have probably forgotten mercantilism because it has been relegated to the dustbin of history.  Short version:  your goal is to accumulate wealth, so you set up a system to extract resources from everywhere you can in order to accumulate gold.  Whoever has the most gold wins.  Resources are mostly extracted and moved around and whoever has the ability to extract and move the resources around is the one who gets the gold, and hence winds up ahead.  Trade, then, is problematic because everything is basically zero-sum.  Someone winds up with more gold, and that person is the winner, so trade agreements can only exist within mercantilist systems because don't touch my gold!

This is the short version of mercantilism, and it is written specifically to focus on the aspects that make you think of Donald J. Trump, stable genius, oh-he-of-the-bigly-hands.  Unfair!  Sad!

Adam Smith debunked mercantilism.  Trade is not zero-sum.  I buy a candle from a candle-maker (or, really, an Olight S1R because it's a great EDC flashlight!), and the candle-maker prefers the money to the candle, while I prefer the candle to the money.  We are both better off from the voluntary trade.  The candle-maker didn't beat me by getting my money.  We're both better off.  Adam Smith was right.  This is how capitalism works, and why it still works.

At the level of groups, trade works in other ways.  Comparative advantages are important.  If one country can produce Good A better than it can produce Good B, then everyone is better off when that country produces Good A and trades it.  Otherwise, that country's productive capacity goes to waste.

This is really basic economics.

Trade works.  Capitalism works.  Mercantilism doesn't.  That's why mercantilism collapsed.

The Earth is round(ish), and the math on that is way older than the European explorers/genocidal psychopaths.  Still, one can understand a person in a certain circumstance, looking at the Earth from a certain perspective, and assuming the Earth is flat.

Today, you don't get a pass.  Supposedly, flat-earthers still exist.  I don't know any.  I work on a university campus.  A math-focused university campus.  Somewhere on my campus, there may be a flat-earther.  If there is, and you are reading this... leave me alone.  Like the hypothetical people in Adam Smith's parables, we'll both be happier.

Prior to The Wealth of Nations, the fall of mercantilism and the attendant rise of capitalism, one can understand the appeal of the idea of mercantilism.  Accumulation of gold, and the idea that trade is zero-sum... sure.  This is comprehensible from the perspective of someone lacking the post-Adam Smith knowledge that we have.

The problem is... Donald Trump has no excuse.

There are people with little to no education.  There are people who don't graduate from high school.  High school economics education is not particularly extensive.  Colleges don't require economics.

Donald Trump... loves to tell you that he went to an "Ivy League" school.  Whenever someone tells you that, it means University of Pennsylvania.  (If they say, "in Boston," that means Harvard, and they want you to probe so that they can do it as a humblebrag and pretend they don't like to talk about it).  Why the phrasing?  Penn is technically Ivy League, but it is the lowest-ranked Ivy League school, and most people don't know it is an Ivy League school, so he wants you to think he went to either Harvard, Princeton or Yale.

Of course, first he went to Fordham because he couldn't get into Penn until daddy pulled strings, but he did graduate from the Wharton School of Business at U Penn.  It is one of the top business schools, for whatever that's worth.  He really wants you to know it, though.

If you go to Wharton, you have no excuse for believing in mercantilism.  None.  This shit was debunked centuries ago.

And so, yesterday, our mercantilist President announced his plans for tariffs.


Of course, tariffs survived long after we reached the point at which no one had any valid excuse for believing in mercantilism.  Part of it is that trade wars can start even between non-mercantilist countries with slow escalation, and perhaps we will see that.  Part of it is that domestic political pressures can exist within industries without any grand economic theory.  I could keep going, but that's not my point for today.

My point for today is that Trump is proposing tariffs because Donald J. Trump is a mercantilist, and nobody today has any excuse for mercantilism.  Particularly not someone so proud of having transferred to Wharton.

Adam Smith won.  Mercantilism is economic flat-eartherism.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Yesterday's meeting was interesting, but Trump has no influence on the House

Last week, I posted this, telling you to ignore everything Trump says about guns and gun control.  He is politically irrelevant on the topic.  Why?  The House of Representatives.

Yesterday, we had... that weird meeting.  Give it to Trump-- nothing is ever boring in politics with him as President.  Supposedly now he is moving left on gun control.  Of course, remember that, once upon a time, he was pro-choice, supported single-payer healthcare and all of that.  Trump doesn't have actual policy positions.  He just says whatever he thinks sounds good at the time.

What will happen?  Remember that even the small bill co-sponsored by John Cornyn to get states to update their criminal databases for background checks... here's the betting at PredictIt on that passing.  And that's with John Cornyn co-sponsoring it.

Why?  Like I wrote last week, Trump doesn't matter.  The House does.  John Cornyn doesn't even matter that much here.  Yes, he is the number-two Republican in the Senate (oh, how I wish I could write, "the new Number 2..." because, yes, I am obsessed), but he has no pull in the House.

The majority party in the House can block anything from getting a floor vote.  Easily.  Paul Ryan's position is precarious.  He is only there because the Freedom Caucus sacked Boehner.  If he alienates the Freedom Caucus, the same thing happens to him.  The Freedom Caucus has veto power.  They don't want anything to pass.  So, Paul Ryan can't let anything get to the floor.  Period.  Yesterday's meeting was a sideshow.  For Trump, it has the benefit of letting him position himself as more of a centrist, Democrats get to posture on their little hobby horse, but this is just spectacle.

The probability of passage for the "Fix NICS" bill is still below 50%.  Anything bigger than that (and it's a nothing bill)?  Ain't happenin'.

Don't watch the magician's lovely assistant.  Watch his hands.  (His tiny, tiny hands...)

And as a reminder, if you were going to whine about the NRA and their filthy, filthy money, here's my post on "villains."

And if you were going to whine about "common sense," here's my post on "common sense" claims in policy debates.

Sorry, gotta be me.