Saturday, March 31, 2018

What could Trump do to the economy?

Following from yesterday's post, what could Trump do to the economy?  The economy really is in pretty damned good shape.  Not best-ever shape, as Trump would have people believe.  That's just Trump-ian bragging, but pretty good.  Is the economy idiot-proof?

No.  The economy is insulated from the president, but there is plenty that a bad president could do to tank the economy.  Let's just run through a few possibilities.

1)  Escalating trade war.  This one is obvious to anyone whose economics education includes anything written post-1776, the year in which Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, founding modern theories of capitalism and debunking mercantilism.  Of course, Trump is an economic flat-earther-- a mercantilist.  Or, he would be if he were smart enough to understand what mercantilism is.  Mostly, he's just a moron who sees everything in zero-sum terms, and hence thinks that a trade deficit means we're "losing."  So, he's trying to start a trade war.  There are plenty of ways that this can tank the economy.  It can tank individual industries, creating knock-on effects.  It can raise consumer prices, and choke off economic activity.  Remember that consumer spending is the biggest component of GDP.  And, if everyone else responds in kind, the world enters a vicious cycle in which everyone else does the same, and...  This is so monstrously stupid that our best hope is that others around the world don't rise to the bait.  The tariffs so far are limited, and other countries are responding by increasing their incentives to do business with each other rather than choking off business with us.  That minimizes the risk of reciprocal escalation.  Smart.  Why?  Because every other world leader right now is smarter than Donald Trump.  Risk?  Non-zero, but low given how other countries are responding.  This will drag us down a bit, but not tank the economy, in my estimation as an economically-trained political scientist.  I'm reading the political choices of other world leaders here rather than the economics.

2)  Refusing to raise the debt ceiling.  This would be a simple way to bring everything down, but there doesn't seem to be any interest in it.  Yay (?)  Hey, if some jackass goes on Fox & Friends to tell Donald not to sign a debt ceiling increase, we could be fucked, so for now, let's rejoice that this doesn't seem to be a problem.  I really wish that weren't a serious statement.

3)  Listening to John Bolton.  George Carlin had a great line about war.  He had great lines about everything, but today, I reference his philosophy on war.  "What?!  They have bigger dicks?!  BOMB THEM!"  John Bolton must have the tiniest penis in history because there isn't a country on earth he doesn't want to bomb.

Is war good for the economy?  This is an interesting piece of politico-economic lore that has been floating around since WWII.  Unemployment peaked at around 25% during the Great Depression, and didn't really resolve until WWII.  Ergo, war is good for the economy, right?  Sounds vaguely like a Ferengi Rule of Acquisition:  War is good for business.  That would be Rule 34, frequently confused with Rule 35 (Peace is good for business).

Sort of.  Why did WWII resolve the Depression?  Government spending to restart factories, and such.  They just flat-out gave people jobs to start production of goods that the military needed for the war.  Suddenly, everyone either got shipped off to the European or Pacific theater, or had a job.  It isn't that war, per se, is good for the economy.  It was simple Keynesian economics as a response to a depressed economy.

Can war hurt an economy?  A couple of things.  First, what happens here?  If we start a war needlessly, depending on what happens, you have interruption of economic activity.  Shoot off a few missiles and nothing changes here, but a larger war changes more things.  It all depends on how insecure John Bolton feels.  You have potential economic responses from around the world.  And... other potential responses from other countries, depending on what Bolton tells Trump to do.  There are plenty of bad scenarios.  War has no definitive economic consequences.  Everything is contingent.

So, let's put this together.  Can Trump tank the economy, so to speak?  Or, should I not write, "tank?"

Most economic policy is set by the Federal Reserve, and Trump made a reasonable appointment.  Powell isn't John Taylor.  Taylor is a smart economist.  Creative, intellectual, provocative, and...

Completely off his fucking rocker.  You know where such people belong?  The Hoover Institution at Stanford is a great place for him.  Remember Herbert Hoover?  Of course, as a Berkeley guy, I love to bash Stanford anyway, but academia in general is a good place for smart but wrong people.  It defangs us.  (Hi!)  Powell?  He's fine.  Replacing Yellen was dangerous, stupid, and probably misogynistic, but Powell is fine.

Regardless, the Fed can tank the economy.  Will they?  Not likely.  Congress, in principle, could.  Will they?  Not in the short run.  They'll continue doing stupid things, but they won't do anything that can tank an economy in the current condition.

What's left?  What do I keep saying?  Responding to a crisis.  That's the real danger of Trump.  Imagine the 2008 collapse of the financial sector under a dipshit like Trump.

Fun thoughts...

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

From the rock-side of country.  Bloodkin, "A Place To Crash," from Baby, They Told Us We Would Rise Again.

Friday, March 30, 2018

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

David Gilmore (yes, -ore), "Change," from Numerology.  Yes, he is a guitarist.  Yes, that messes up plenty of internet searches because every search engine thinks you mis-spelled it.  Different guy.

An objective assessment of where the economy is now (Trump is...wrong, but not THAT wrong)

It is periodically useful to do this.  Your partisan and ideological leanings condition how you see the world.  When the president is of your party, you are predisposed to see things through rose-tinted glasses, and when the president is someone you are predisposed to dislike, you are predisposed to see the economy, and everything else, as going to shit.

"The Committee" has declared me "unmutual," and... I am.  They're right, of course.  Quite right.  I look at actual data.  Is Trump a festering boil on the body politic?  Yes.  Does he have a clue what he is doing?  No.

Does it follow from that that the economy sucks?


Trump bragged yesterday because he is Trump.  He bragged about the economy being the best ever.  For those of us who detest Trump, it is useful to check in on the actual data.  How is the economy, objectively?  For that, we turn to my good buddy, FRED.  Federal Reserve Economic Data.  Numbers are awesome.  Let's just do the big time series for a few things, to keep everything in perspective.  You know, perspective?  That thing I keep prodding everyone to take?  Let's start with GDP.

How's it doing?  GDP is growing, but see all of those spikes in the post-WWII period?  We are nowhere near those.  In numeric terms, GDP is larger than it has ever been, but the rate of growth?  Nothing special.  GDP is larger than it has ever been, but except during and immediately after recessions, that's always true.  The key thing to examine is growth.  Nothing special here.  We are still in a long period of growth, but a nothing-special rate of growth.  Next up, how about unemployment?

Here, we are doing pretty well.  The last time we touched a rate this low was around the tech bubble, and before that, the late 60s.  There isn't any sign that we are in a tech bubble, or anything comparable, so the employment situation really is pretty good.  I'll come back to the labor force participation rate in a moment.

Of course, remember the tradeoff between unemployment and inflation?  It is hard to have a low rate of unemployment and a low rate of inflation.  If everyone has a job, firms start raising prices because they can, but if nobody has a job, prices are kept low because nobody can raise their prices without losing business.  The old Phillips Curve.  If unemployment is low, how is inflation?  Let's check in on consumer prices.

Not too bad!  Particularly compared to that wretched period in the late 70s...  There are plenty of inflation measures I could have thrown up here, but you get the point.  Inflation is low.  This raises a lot of questions of economic policy and theory, but in terms of unemployment and inflation... Damn.  Nice.  So, how about that unemployment rate thing?  Remember how we compute the "standard" rate of unemployment.  (I'll spare you the lecture on U1 through U6 for today...)  You aren't counted as unemployed if you have been out of work for more than six months, and such.  So, it is also important to look at measures such as the labor force participation rate.  If low proportions of the population are in the labor force, that low unemployment rate doesn't mean as much.  So, labor force participation...

Lower than it has been.  This is kind of the fly in the ointment of the economy.  Why didn't it go back up?  Hard to say.  One more thing-- the stock market.  Here's the S&P...

Yup.  Recovered nicely.  We aren't at all-time highs, and there have been some freak-outs, particularly because of Trump's idiotic fucking trade war, but the stock market is doing great, in the big picture.

So, how are things doing?  Quite well.  What do we learn?

1)  Not the all-time best, but pretty good.

2)  Trade wars are stupid, and Trump needs to cut this shit out.

3)  Presidents have little impact on the economy, which most scholars already knew.

4)  The most important role for presidents is in handling crises, which Trump hasn't faced.

That said, we have yet to see what the long-term effects of certain policies will be.  As always, though, remember to look at objective data, and not to assume that everything sucks just because the President is an idiotic sociopath.

The fact that the economy doesn't suck, though, doesn't mean we are safe.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Gaming out the pardoning of Manafort or Flynn

The latest "news" from the Russian Front is that Trump did, indeed, discuss the idea of pardoning his way out of the Russia investigation.  Shocker.  Checking in over at the prediction markets, shares of Manafort getting a pardon, or Flynn getting a pardon are currently trading at around 20 cents on the dollar for 2018.  What's going on here?

There are a few legal issues to consider.  Anyone claiming that Trump would be committing an impeachable offense by issuing one of these pardons would have a difficult time making the case.  The pardon is a constitutionally granted power.  Could it, in principle, be used to obstruct justice?  Sure, but when you have unclear rules versus clear constitutional powers, clear constitutional powers win out.  Yes, Trump can pardon Flynn or Manafort.  Would it obstruct justice in a philosophical sense?  Yes, but making a legal case against that?  That's hard.  The Constitution wins.

Manafort has the possibility of state charges in New York, and Trump can't pardon him for those, but right now, so what?  That doesn't give him a disincentive.

Then, there's the issue of 5th amendment protections.  Supposedly, once pardoned, Manafort and Flynn lose their 5th amendment rights to refuse to testify, and could be forced to testify.  Who's going to make them?  Devin Nunes?

No, this really is on the table.  For Trump, though, the question is need.  Why bother?  If he doesn't think that he'll be impeached or face criminal charges, then why bother doing anything politically dangerous, as pardoning Manafort or Flynn would be?  Politically charged pardons tend to come at the end of a president's term.  Arpaio was odd, but that was also a) a personal thing, and b) red meat for his base.

At this point, there are two questions:  a) have Manafort or Flynn flipped, and b) will they flip?

If they have flipped, let 'em burn, for what few charges they have already faced.  The question is whether or not they will flip.  The pardon is a potential way to keep them from flipping, but what is the point at which they would flip?

What are the consequences of not flipping?  Prison time?  This is the kind of question Trump has to ask.

But, even if they do flip, so what?  Congressional Republicans won't impeach, and a sitting president can't be charged with crimes without an impeachment first, so even if one or both flip, Trump has Devin Nunes, and by extension, Paul Ryan and the entire Republican congressional delegation backing him.

Prior to Nunes and the GOP reaction to Nunes, Trump may have had more of a need to pardon his way out of this, but at this point, it probably doesn't matter what Mueller does.  If Mueller gets too close, Trump can fire Rosenstein, replace Rosenstein with a flunky who fires Mueller, have his flunky replace Mueller with another flunky, and bury the investigation.  At that point, Trump is safe.

If a president has the unconditional backing of his entire party, that president is above the law.  Does the Constitution say that?  No, but that's how it actually works.  How do we know that?  Are you paying attention?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The important politics of the Census

So, are we asking people about their citizenship status in the Census?

The Constitution is, as ever, remarkably vague, but the process of the Census is politically vital.  According to the Supreme Court in Baker v. Carr, we are supposed to have equal population between districts, and we allocate congressional districts across states by population (apportionment).  Then, there is funding.  Federal money is allocated based on population for a lot of stuff.  The interesting thing about how the population rule works is that even people who don't get to vote are counted, even for representational purposes.

From a democratic theory perspective, this is kind of odd.  My region gets a certain number of representatives based on the total number of people in it, and people who don't get to vote count.  If you find yourself thinking back to the counting of slaves as 3/5 of a person for such purposes, giving a mathematical advantage to slaveholders, well...

Suppose you have a population that consists of eligible voters and ineligible voters, but the ineligible voters are non-randomly distributed geographically.  If ineligible voters are "counted" in terms of apportionment of congressional districts across states, and "counted" in terms of population of districts because under Baker v. Carr, districts must have equal population without distinguishing between eligible and ineligible voters, then the eligible voters in the regions that contain disproportionate numbers of ineligible voters have their votes counted more because they are a higher proportion of the eligible population in their districts.

Put simply, if I live in a region in which 20% of the people are ineligible to vote because they are not citizens, and I am part of the 80% who are citizens, then I have more weight attached to my vote than someone who lives in a district with the same total population but where only 2% of the population are non-citizens.

Notice what I did there.  I sidestepped the entire bullshit issue of non-citizen voting.  Illegal immigrants aren't trying to vote.  We don't have a voter fraud problem.  That whole thing is a bunch of bullshit.  Go read Justin Levitt's research on the subject.  Trump is a lying sack of shit, but there are real, mathematical questions here.

Of course, we can apply the same logic to children.  Anyone under 18 doesn't get to vote.  The same logic can apply to convicted felons in states without re-enfranchisement, or anyone in prison, and... how do we count prisoners?  Where are college students counted, just to name an issue that is directly related to my line of work?

When it comes to questions of population and allocation of resources, apportionment, etc., what is the standard, or what should it be?  Equal raw population?  Equal population over 18?  Equal citizen population?  Equal citizen population over 18?  Equality of eligible voter population?  Equality of likely turnout, based on the observation that likely turnout varies across districts given demographics?  What about resource allocation?  Lots, and lots, and lots of legitimate questions here.

When it comes to resource allocation, though, consider this.  There are institutions like hospitals that get federal funding.  People show up whether they are citizens or not.  Those institutions need to be able to serve their populations, unless you want people with communicable illnesses out and about...  That requires a count.  An accurate one.  Any method of counting likely to under-count high-need populations creates a potential problem.

Gee... I wonder if asking about citizenship status in mixed-status households when people are afraid of the government might lead to under-counts...

Anyway, even if we understand that Trump is a lying sack of fucking shit, there are some real questions here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Political science jargon on the difference between "crime" and "gun violence"

In Saturday's post, I took liberals to task for making the same mistake as Donald Trump regarding guns and crime.  Where Trump saw a nonexistent crime wave in 2016, liberals see an overblown threat of "gun violence."  What's the difference?

Let's be precise.  There is such a thing as crime without guns.  There is nonviolent crime, and there are violent crimes that don't involve guns.  In the former category, there are plenty of drug-related offenses, not to mention things like burglary, fraud... perjury, obstruction of justice, treason...  Just sayin'...

Violent crimes don't always involve guns.  Domestic abuse usually doesn't, and there are plenty of other cases of assault that don't involve guns.

"Crime" and "gun violence" are not synonymous.  "Gun violence" is a subcategory of "crime."

As for the politics, though...

Are Republicans and conservatives disproportionately afraid of the crime that doesn't involve guns?  Are they just extra scared of knife crime?  Sexual assault and domestic abuse?  Burglary and fraud?  White collar crime?

No.  That's not what's going on here.  That's not why Donald Trump, and Republicans more generally talk about "crime," and the left talks about "gun violence."

The terms you need to know:  "symbolic racism," and, "framing."

Symbolic racism refers to expression of racial animosity through symbolic positions that indirectly tap into racial attitudes because direct expressions of racial animosity are frowned upon.  The classic example, for decades, has been the word, "welfare."  Picture, in your mind's eye, a person on "welfare."  Most Americans will picture someone with dark skin.  Therefore, talk about "welfare," rather than, say, Medicaid, and you prompt people to think about transfers of money from white people to African-Americans.  That makes racists unhappy, so they are less supportive of "welfare" than "Medicaid."  How prominent is symbolic racism?  Measuring it is hard because it is, by definition, indirect.

"Crime."  Why did Donald Trump spend the 2016 convention talking about "crime?"  Why has the GOP been doing this since, well... Willie Horton?  You remember what he looked like, right?  Say "crime," and people are more likely to think of minorities.  Why do you think Trump kept talking about inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago?

"Gun violence."  When liberals go on these marches, they aren't responding to crime in general.  They are responding to school shootings and such.  "Mass" shooters?  They're usually white, and by focusing on these incidents specifically, you alter the racial aspect of the dialog.  Neat trick, right?  Think, in your mind's eye, of a "mass shooter."  You probably think of a white dude with an assault rifle rather than an African-American sporting gang colors.  See how that works?

This is what happens when you pose two alternative "frames."  Crime, generally, versus gun violence.  In principle, the GOP position is not that non-gun crimes are more scary than gun crimes.  It's just that the frames and context either evoke or evade racial politics in different ways.

Remember, though, that crime rates aren't going up.  Violent crime rates aren't going up.  You aren't going to be shot, stabbed, chainsawed, or hit in the head with an axe.  If you actually worry about this shit, you need to pay more attention to FBI crime statistics.  Eat healthy, exercise, don't text-and-drive, and stop worrying about shit that ain't gonna kill you.

Otherwise, you sound like Donald Fuckin' Trump to me.

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

OK... you know that the rest of the title is "but Tuesday's just as bad," right?  Here's Australian blues guitarist, Geoff Achison.  I promised I wouldn't do "Stormy Monday" on Monday.  Today is Tuesday.  Besides, Geoff Achison is really good.  Also, who the hell is Eva Kourtes?  I don't know, but this kid has talent, and if she spends enough time on stage honing her chops, she has a bright future.  This is how Derek Trucks got his education.

Anyway, no more "Stormy Monday" after this.  I can't promise I won't post more storm-themed music.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Stormy Daniels and "grab 'em by the pussy"

Fuck that "lewd" description, and fuck you if you object to my use of the word, "fuck."  Assault isn't "lewd."  It is criminal sexual assault.  Focus on the act, not the language, you pearl-clutching nitwits.

Still, it is important to remind everyone, once in a while, of this recording.  After its release, Trump's numbers in the 2016 election dropped several points.  They didn't crater, though.  Clinton looked like she had a lock on the presidency (hi, former FBI Director Comey!), but Trump's numbers didn't crater.  Why not?  Same reason Roy Moore had a base of support, even though he's a child-raping sack of shit.  Mindless partisanship can convince people to disregard damn near anything.

The big Stormy Daniels interview aired last night.  What did we learn?  Not much, really.  Trump denies the affair, but who's more believable-- a porn star whose job is to fake orgasms, or the President of the United States of America?

Let that one sink in.

Then, there's the possibility of threats against Daniels.  Did they happen?  Here's the basic problem.  I... don't know.  I wouldn't be surprised if they did, but Daniels has every incentive to exaggerate.  In a Trump vs. Daniels credibility-off, Daniels will have more credibility with me because literally every person on the planet has more credibility with me than Donald Trump, and I hate it when people misuse the word, "literally."

Will this matter, though?

Politically, no.  Trump lost a few points in the polls when pussygate broke.  His party has stronger incentives now to back him because of the growing Mueller threats.  They need to worry about a partywide catastrophe at this point.  Legally...

Threats against Daniels would be serious business if she had evidence.  So far, it doesn't look like she does.  So, it's just a very plausible accusation floating around.  It will be denied by all Republicans, and it won't affect Trump.

The hush money payments to Daniels by Trump's lawyer are potential legal trouble.  Who's going to go after this, though?  The legal issues are technically in the realm of campaign finance law, and the most likely avenue for pursuing sanctions are through the FEC.  The FEC is generally called a "paper tiger."  It has almost no real enforcement power, and it is generally deadlocked because there are six commissioners by structure-- three Democrats, and three Republicans.  A majority is necessary for a sanction to be imposed.  Partisanship generally prevents the FEC from doing what little it is empowered to do anyway.

Unless some zealous prosecutor goes after Trump's lawyer on RICO for that hush money payment, they're safe, and, um... that ain't happenin'.  Have you noticed what Trump is doing to the DoJ?

So, we've got a sex scandal, a payoff, and a campaign finance scandal.  Sex scandals go away when a politician's party backs him, and the GOP will never turn on Trump.  (SDLKfH:OIDHGfliu)  That parenthetical was me attempting to type the sound of a broken record skipping.  The campaign finance scandal is as irrelevant as any campaign finance scandal because of the inability of the FEC to act.

The payoff... nothing will happen because of it.  It is simply a reminder that Trump is susceptible to blackmail.  He has already paid hush money.

And the first thing he did when he met the Russians in the Oval Office was hand over national security secrets.

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

Sometimes, you just have to go overboard.  If I'm doing this, I'm starting off right, with T-Bone Walker.

It's such a classic, though, that everyone had to cover it.  Here are some famous versions, starting with Albert Collins.

Here's Albert King playing it with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

What's that?  King?  What about BB?  Here's BB playing it live on Austin City Limits.

And of course, the Allman Brothers.  Classic line-up.

No more "Stormy Monday" on Monday.  It just had to be done today.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

John Bolton matters

Protests can matter.  Usually, they don't.

John Bolton matters.

Congress is done for 2018.  There won't be any more legislation, now that appropriations have gone through.  There is a relatively high likelihood that Democrats will get a majority in the House in the midterm elections, making legislation unlikely through 2020.  Trump, facing a Democratic Congress, will simply become even more combative and confrontational.  The greatest risk of a Trump Presidency has always been that he turns his frustration outwards.

Right now, he is doing that with a trade war.  He is imposing tariffs, and his legal/constitutional justification for imposing taxes without congressional approval is that there is a national security concern.  It's bullshit, but who's going to stop him?

Trade wars are a manifestation of Trump's idiotic mercantilism, yet that, itself, is a manifestation of his basic, zero-sum mentality towards everything.  The more frustrated he gets, the more he will lash out.  He will be unable to lash out domestically, neutered as he will be legislatively.  That leaves the international arena.

It is as Trump's frustration is about to mount that John Bolton steps out of Trump's tv screen and into his office.  The probability of a war just went up.  Dramatically.

Perspective.  Some things matter, and others... less so.

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

Unfortunately, I couldn't embed the complete album, but I tried to embed Cahalen Morrison & Eli West's The Holy Coming of the Storm.  None of the individual tracks had the same... uh...

Anyway, here's Tim O'Brien's "Edge of the Storm," from Rock In My Shoe.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

What today's left has in common with Donald Trump

When Donald Trump gave his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention in 2016, he portrayed the country as a crime-infested, post-apocalyptic hellhole.  Roving gangs are coming to steal your gasoline, or something like that.  Then, when he gave his inaugural address, the speech was dubbed "the American carnage" speech for its similar portrayal.

The left responded to Trump's portrayal of the country by thinking back to this.

This was a pretty famous ad.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  If you don't vote for George H.W. Bush, Dukakis is going to let a bunch of scary black people out of prison, and they'll come and kill you, but Bush will kill the fuck out of them first.  Back in 1988, the country actually did have a higher crime rate, based on a variety of factors that scholars still debate.  The intermingling of crime, race and racism, particularly in the 1980s, though, was a big political deal.

Oh, and the Clintons were deep in that mess.

Then, in the 1990s, the crime rate started to go down.  And it kept going down.  Even when the economy tanked, it didn't really go back up.  Why not?  Um...



We don't really know, but the crime rate went down.  I'm a big fan of facts.  Numbers and facts are cool.  If you ever want the real shit on crime in the US, here's the link.

Some people, though, didn't get the message, or just enjoy lying about every fucking thing.  Like Donald Trump.  Hence his convention acceptance speech and inaugural speech.  There is no crime wave.

Now, take the phrase, "we have an epidemic of crime," and replace the word, "crime," with the phrase, "gun violence."

Are you still reading?  Did you cringe, or get really pissed off, or something like that?

The statement would be equally false, but today's left would be all in on it.

There is no epidemic of "gun violence," by any reasonable definition of the word, "epidemic."  Homicides are not going up, nor are other violent crimes, and when today's left starts getting into this shit, they are doing exactly what Donald Trump did during his convention speech and the American carnage speech.  FBI crime statistics.  Trump was full of shit, and don't start spewing the same nonsense with just a minor turn of phrase.

This weekend is the "March for Innumeracy Our Lives."  What will really kill you?  Leading causes of death in the US are heart disease and cancer.

But, wait!  What kills children?  Why, I'm glad you asked.  We have numbers for that, thanks to the CDC.  Death rates by age group.  Here's the 2017 report.  Death rates are reported by age group.  Let's focus on the 15-24 age range.  Scroll down to Table 6, Page 32.

OK, for comparison, how many people died at Parkland?  17.  How many people die in school shootings?  Since Sandy Hook, over 400.  Why use that rather than total firearm deaths?  Because that gets into a range of other types of crime, and this march is about school shootings, let's be real.

When children die, that is tragic for their family and friends.  Let's put these tragedies in perspective, though.  There are, after all, more than 300,000,000 in this country, and tragedies happen every day.  You just never hear nor read about them.  Out of sight, out of mind.  That's why I always remind people about waterborne pathogens in this context.

Compare that to Table 6 in the CDC report.  997 deaths among the 15-24 age group in 2015 alone from heart disease.  You probably think of that as an oldsters's problem.  Kids are more likely to die of heart disease than a school shooting.

By far.  It ain't close.  Why don't you hear/read about the kids dying of heart disease?  What do I keep telling you?  "The paradox of news."  If it is too common, it doesn't get news coverage.  Kids dying of heart disease is common enough that nobody covers it in the news.  You just don't think about it.  But, it is way more common than school shootings.

12,514 accidental deaths.  Most of them car accidents.  2015 alone.

I could keep going through those statistics, but this is the basic point of how you should assess competing risks.  School shootings are very, very rare, and the risks they pose are tiny if you actually put them on an objective scale.

However, the fact of their occurrence draws attention from liberals beyond their actual frequency or risk, just as the occurrence of crime draws attention from Trump beyond its actual frequency or risk.

When Donald Trump finds stories of people who were victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants or the MS-13 gang, those crimes happened, and they are tragic.  We, as a polity, need to keep a sense of perspective, though, by understanding proportionality.  Moreover, putting those crimes in perspective by pointing out the lack of an increase in the crime rate is no more cold-blooded than anything I have written here.  It is the same process.

The Buchler-Gekko rule applies:  Math, for lack of a better word, is good.  Math is right.  Math works.  Math clarifies, cuts through...

Don't be like Donald Trump.

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

I'm going to cheat and call this country.  They are country-influenced.  (They're also Canadian, but oh well).  The Duhks, "Mighty Storm," from Fast Paced World.

Friday, March 23, 2018

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

Must... resist... temptation...

Nope.  Can't do it.  Here's Roland Kirk's "Stormy Weather," from Third Dimension.  Get the cd version, Third Dimension and Beyond for the extra materials.  I didn't want to use Roland again, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and really, there's no such thing as too much Roland Kirk.

Come on.  At least I haven't used "Riders on the Storm."  (Or... "The End"...)

Function and dysfunction in 2018

No shutdown.  This shouldn't be a question, but there are lots of questions we shouldn't have to ask that I find myself asking on a regular basis.

Hey, look!  Appropriations!  Not one of those stupid "continuing resolutions" that just makes minor adjustments to the idiocy of the 2011 Budget Control Act and sequestration!  Also, I didn't set my kitchen, nor subsequently the entire neighborhood on fire this morning when I made my breakfast omelette!  Yay, me!

Bars.  Limbo, limbo, lim-BO!  Nope, made it over it that time.

Then, of course, we have the firing/resignation/whatever of McMaster.  John Bolton is going to be the new National Security Advisor.  (What do bomb shelters cost these days?)  And Trump is amping up his trade war, so the markets tanked yesterday.  His lawyer in the Mueller investigation resigned because, well... most likely, Dowd was telling him not to tweet taunts about Mueller, McCabe etc., and he couldn't do it, so Dowd quit.  And then there's McDougal and the upcoming Daniels thing, and, and, and...

So, a few points.

1)  In budgetary terms, this isn't really what I'd call, "functional."  Functionality would entail the involvement of committee work, CBO scoring and all of that stuff.  This last-minute brinksmanship bullshit?  Not functional.  Also, anything involving Rand Paul is, by definition, not functional.  I guess he tried to get the Drama Club back together, but only managed a one-man show.  I wonder if Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Ron Johnson will be going through their "goth" phases soon, leaving Rand entirely on his own.  Anyway, just because we a) aren't going to have a shutdown, and b) aren't doing a CR, doesn't mean Congress gets a pat on the back for functionality.  Besides, haven't a bunch of them been warned about pats on the back and other physical displays?

2)  It's this, the tax bill, and nothing else for the rest of the term.  And the tax bill was written in an even more haphazard way, making it infinitely exploitable.  That's not functionality.  We are simply seeing more functionality than shutdowns and CRs.  How low can our standards get?  Low enough to elect Donald Trump, apparently, which leads to...

3)  The obvious comparison is to Trump, and his dysfunction.  As bad as Congress is, Trump makes them look positively effectual.  Remember, though, that Trump is a product of the same political dysfunction that produced the tea party lunacy that has afflicted Congress since the 2010 election, and the general anti-intellectual, constant partisan warfare mentality that really traces back to Newt Gingrich, and his takeover of the party in 1994.  He shut down the government twice in 1995 and 1996.

4)  You will continue to hear that the GOP has made a deal to defend Trump because Trump signs Republican bills, like tax cuts.  Well, that's done now.  They've shot their wad on healthcare, and they failed.  A bunch of times.  The tax bill passed, so that's done.  The omnibus appropriations bill is going through.  Congress is done, essentially, through 2018.  That's it.  They have nothing left, policy-wise.  It's time to call bullshit on this argument.  Republicans aren't backing Trump in exchange for a tax cut because they already have their tax cut.  They could throw him overboard, put Pence in charge, and the tax cut would still be there.  Why are they still defending him?  The same reason I keep telling you.  If they let him burn, it's 1974 and 1976 all over again, but if they circle the wagons, and declare all attacks on Trump to be empty partisanship, then they minimize the electoral damage.  That's it.  Republican defenses of Trump are all about minimizing the electoral damage of his scandals.  Period.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Understanding the likely budget deal

We probably won't have a government shutdown.  Probably.  Funding runs out tomorrow, so if there's a slip-up (I'm looking at you, Rand Paul), we might have another of those fake, weekend shutdowns, or there might be a weekend "continuing resolution" while they iron out the details and pass the final bill on Monday, but...

Holy shit!  They're passing an actual set of appropriations!  Real appropriations, rather than CRs!  This... shouldn't be news.  Congress is supposed to pass, and the president is supposed to sign regular appropriations that fund federal agencies from fiscal year to fiscal year (October to October because, why the fuck not?), but we stopped doing that back in 2011.  Why?  Remember when the "tea party" was a thing?  Remember when they nearly drove the country, and hence the world, to financial ruin just for shits and giggles?  Yeah, that...

Back in the summer of 2011, we needed to "raise the debt ceiling," which is supposed to be a routine thing.  Forget the name.  It just means giving Treasury the authority to issue the bonds necessary to fund the spending that Congress has already authorized through prior appropriations (or CRs) and "entitlement" spending (Social Security and Medicare, mainly).  The debt ceiling is the statutory limit on the value of the bonds Treasury can issue, and if they aren't allowed to issue the bonds necessary to cover the spending they are required to cover, then... somebody's gotta break a law, and bad shit happens.  So, we raise the fuckin' debt ceiling to prevent bad shit from happening.  Nobody likes voting for it because saying "I voted to raise the debt ceiling" sounds bad to people who a) don't know what the debt ceiling is, and b) have a reflexive misunderstanding of the difference between private and public debt, but... damn it, raise the fucking debt ceiling.  Or, if we were intelligent, we wouldn't have a debt ceiling.  It's a stupid law, and other countries don't have one.

Anyway, back in 2011, after the "tea party" wave that brought the GOP to a House majority, they kinda forgot that as majority, they actually needed to vote to raise the debt ceiling.  Normally, prior to that, it was the minority party that did its bullshit posturing against the debt ceiling.  But, the teabaggers kept up their posturing, and either said no debt ceiling increase period, or demanded massive spending cuts.  They pushed then-Speaker John Boehner to play a game of brinksmanship with Obama.  The result was the 2011 Budget Control Act.  It raised the debt ceiling (but didn't eliminate it), but also imposed massive spending cuts, and then, to make matters worse, created a "supercommittee" to propose more "deficit reduction" measures, and if that committee couldn't agree, we would get "sequestration."  Across-the-board spending cuts intended to be so stupid-- so obviously stupid-- that nobody would let it happen.  The supercommittee would come to an agreement.  Except that the Republican position was that it should be 100% spending cuts, 0% tax increases, and the Democratic position was that it should be more than 0% tax increases, so... no agreement.  Sequestration went into effect.  Across-the-board, intentionally, recklessly stupid spending cuts, on top of those written into the Budget Control Act.

And that's where we've been.  Incrementally, Congress has been trying to claw back bits of the dumbassery in sequestration, but fiscal policy has been set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 because... well, mainly because of the oh-fuck-it mentality.

We are finally getting new appropriations.  The omnibus appropriations bill that is about to be passed is a real set of appropriations rather than the continuing resolutions that have incrementally modified the 2011 Budget Control Act spending levels.  What does it do?  There are bits here and there, and a lot of what is getting attention is the stupid, little shit, like "Fix NICS."  That's a nothing bill, incorporated into the omnibus legislation as a sweetener.  Mostly, what Congress is doing is undoing the Budget Control Act and sequestration to the degree that they can.

That's what's going on.

So, remember that big fight from 2011?  Remember all of the stupid shit that followed between Obama and the Republicans in Congress?

Oh, never mind.  We were just kidding.

Oh, and from a Keynesian perspective?  In 2011, the economy was weak.  That was when we should have been increasing the deficit.  The economy is strong now.  Now is the time to cut the deficit, for anyone who actually follows the logic of John Maynard Keynes.

Random Thursday music

I just can't help myself.  I have too many of these...  Mark Growden, "Been In The Storm So Long," from Saint Judas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What Flake and Graham could really do on the Trump/Mueller issue

As you may have read, Senators Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham have made noises about supporting impeachment if Trump fired Mueller.  You know what I'm going to say, right?


There is something that Flake and Graham could do, though, if they really wanted to prevent Trump from firing Mueller.  The fact that they aren't doing it demonstrates that they are full of shit.

Remember Jim Jeffords?  I've told this story before.  It was important.  The 2000 election created a 50-50 Senate, so when the White House went to George W. Bush, Cheney got the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, giving the chamber to the GOP.  By one vote.  That included Vermont Republican, Jim Jeffords.  He... didn't get along with Majority Leader Trent Lott.  Lott was a good ole' boy from Mississippi, who eventually had to step down when he told too many people, too many times, that the country would have been better off electing Strom Thurmond on his segregationist platform in 1948.  Back in 2001, though, he was still Majority Leader in the Senate, and he and Jeffords clashed a lot, most famously over something that they have in abundance in Vermont.

No, not pot, nor the hippies that accompany it.

Dairy products.  Lott pushed a provision to cut dairy subsidies.  It was a straw, and there were camels and chiropractors, or... I forget how the metaphor goes, but Jeffords lost his shit because he was a Republican, and he wasn't smoking all of that pot they grow in Vermont, so he actually switched parties.  He was a moderate anyway, so it wasn't a big deal for him.  He decided to give his vote to South Dakota's Tom Daschle as chamber leader, and that one vote was enough to given Democrats procedural control of the chamber.  The Senate went from 50-50 with Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote to 51-49 Democratic.  Because Lott fucked with dairy subsidies.  That was all it took.

Right now, the Senate is 51-49 Republican.  It would have been 52-48 if the Alabama GOP hadn't nominated a child rapist in last year's special election, but... the heart wants what the heart wants.  If two Republican Senators voted to give procedural control to Chuck Schumer, control of the chamber would flip.

Hmmmm.... Two.  I wonder... are there two who have been making noises about anything?  Jeff?  Lindsey?  See where I'm going with this?

Yeah, impeachment ain't happenin'.  However, there is a stalled bill to block the firing of Robert Mueller.  The general Republican response has been that there is no need for any such bill because Trump would never fire Mueller, so don't pass the bill, which... a) is bullshit because Trump absolutely would fire Mueller if he thought it were his best option, and b) completely misses the point of policy insurance and independent investigatory structures.

If Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham really do object that strongly to the idea of Trump firing Mueller, they could jointly issue the following demand:  the House and Senate must pass that bill, or they both flip, and give procedural control of the Senate to Chuck Schumer.  All it would take is their two votes.

This would be a devastating action on their part.  For the rest of the session, Trump couldn't make any appointments, or pass anything.  The 2018 election is coming up, and it's looking bad for the GOP.  The House?  PredictIt currently gives the Democrats a 70% chance or so of taking the House, and while the Senate is trickier given the seats in play, and Flake is retiring anyway, Graham isn't.  That would contribute to the Democratic chances of holding the Senate in 2018 after a Flake/Graham flip.

Carrying out this threat would be brutal to the GOP.

And Jeff Flake is retiring anyway.  What the hell does he have to lose?

You may notice that nothing of the sort is happening.  Why not?  Because neither Lindsey Graham nor Jeff Flake are serious about this.  There would be policy consequences to giving Chuck Schumer procedural control of the Senate, and neither are willing to pay those policy consequences.  As I wrote the other day, this all comes down to the credibility of threats.  Put in terms of "impeachment," both Graham and Flake know it will never get that far.  They are Senators.  Impeachment starts with the introduction of articles of impeachment in the House, and then a trial in the Senate.  Flake in particular doesn't have to worry about this because he's retiring.  A Republican House would never even consider taking up articles of impeachment against a Republican president.


Graham?  Even if the Democrats take the House in 2018, a) they probably won't impeach, b) they won't get enough seats in the Senate to convict (2/3 supermajority), so his vote won't matter, and c) he's a spineless weasel, so if the Democrats did win the House in 2018 and impeach in the House, he'd just go whichever way the wind blows, and if he has to weasel out of an old promise, that won't bother him.

The point is that if Flake and Graham wanted to do something, they could.  They aren't.  Two GOP Senators are enough to force the party to block Trump from firing Mueller.  Flake and Graham have said they might vote to impeach Trump if he fired Mueller, but... if they were serious, they'd take action.  They aren't taking action.

Therefore, they are full of shit.

Remember, Jim Jeffords gave procedural control to Daschle over dairy subsidies, and these weasels are willing to let Trump get away with high crimes.

Random Wednesday music

I don't have a regular Wednesday music series, but for some reason that I can't quite identify, this tune popped into my head recently.  Here's Bruce Cockburn's "Mistress of Storms," from The Charity of Night.

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...