Monday, April 30, 2018

North Korea, denuclearization and Trump

Is this happening?

I doubt it.  First, some basic reminders about nuclear weapons.  They are a deterrent.  Remember Gaddafi?  Remember how he isn't, you know, breathing anymore?

The US had a long and complicated relationship with Gaddafi.  That's how I'm spelling it, and I don't feel like getting into a whole, big thing about it.  Libyan dictator.  Creepy guy.  You know the one I mean.  Reagan bombed him, he supported terrorists, and we had a lot of stand-offs with him.

When the Bush administration invaded Iraq on the pretense of "weapons of mass destruction," Gaddafi responded by starting to play nice with us.  What did that get him?  At the end of the day, the same thing it got Saddam.  Slightly different path towards it, but we're sort of getting there.  We weren't exactly going to refrain from shooting at him.

The second basic reminder is that other countries have domestic politics.  Even dictatorships.  They have to worry about uprisings, either from within the military, or from the populace.  Gaddafi wound up facing a revolution, and that's how we wound up against him again.

The military and other figures in North Korea understand that the US invaded Iraq.  Twice.  The US played funny airspace games with Libya while Gaddafi got taken down after he tried to play nice because he saw what happened to Hussein.  We toppled Noriega, and we've done all sorts of shit elsewhere.

You know who has been treated very carefully?  North Korea.  Why?  Nukes.  Were Kim to give that up against the will of his generals, he'd face a coup.  Were he to weaken his military's non-nuclear capacity, he'd face a revolution.

So, what's going on here?

You keep reading that Trump's madman schtick is working, referencing the "madman theory," that became popularized under that name with Nixon, but owing to, of course, Thomas Schelling.  Trump rattles his tiny, tiny sabre, the North Koreans have to worry that Trump might actually be crazy enough to do it, so they denuclearize to give the crazy guy something that they wouldn't give to a sane actor.  I wrote a lot about this in the "Political science & craziness" series," in August of 2016, but getting the North Koreans to denuclearize would be... a lot.

What else could be going on here?  First, there isn't a formal agreement on this yet.  Partly, file this under "I'll believe it when I see it."  The incentives against denuclearization for North Korea are just so strong that I have a really hard time seeing them do it.  That leads me to my next point.  International sanctions might work.  They have been imposed for a long time, and the North Korean economy is practically nonexistent.  Kim is dependent on the support of his generals, and he needs to keep them happy.  If the North Korean economy is so bad that he can't even do that because of his inability to get things into the country, then he needs to do something or get taken down.  International sanctions don't generally promote domestic political change, unless everybody is on-board, as in the case of South Africa and apartheid.  (Well, everybody but Reagan!  Gee, I wonder what Trump would have thought...)  So, what's left?  Perhaps this is all just theater.  It frequently is.

What will happen?  I don't know, but I'm going to throw this out there, as one who detests Trump.  What if Trump goes into a meeting with Kim, and an agreement does come out of it?  The probability isn't zero.

We need to be prepared to give a positive evaluation.  Crazier things have happened.

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

John Lee Hooker, "Let's Talk It Over," from Folk Blues.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The White House Correspondents' Dinner, comedy and insight

Last night was the White House Correspondents' Dinner.  Of course, Trump skipped.  He can't stand having people make jokes about him.  At all.  He has the thinnest skin of any political figure ever.  One of the unfortunately plausible hypotheses about Trump's presidential run is the following.  Election after election, he bullshitted about how he might run for president, and nobody believed him.  Then, at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, at the height of Trump's birtherism, Obama humiliated him.

Trump can't take a joke.  So, eventually he did run for president, and after actually winning, he wouldn't attend because even though you get to stand at the podium and give it back, you have to have comedians and other attendees roast you first.  You also have to acknowledge journalists as human beings, and Trump might slip up and use the German phrase for "lying press," if you know what I mean...  Trump actually sat through a Comedy Central Roast years ago, and imposed a rule as a condition for his participation.  No jokes about how he wasn't as rich as he claimed.  They could joke about other stuff, but not that.  That was off-limits.

Gee... I wonder what would happen if he wound up president with a sufficiently brazen comedian.  First, would he attend the Correspondents' Dinner?  Of course not.  His skin defies current models of physics because no material larger than an atom should be thinner than an atom.  Atoms are not supposed to be compressible, so... what's the deal with how thin his skin is?

Anyway, of course he'll skip.  This year, the comedian leading the ceremony was Michelle Wolf, and she was even more caustic than the legendary routine by Stephen Colbert.

She drew blood.  Note two things.  First, she went there with Trump.  She brought the audience into a "how broke is he?" routine.  Nothing pisses Trump off more than challenging his assertions of wealth.  Call him racist.  Call him misogynist.  Call him stupid.  Incompetent.  Ugly.  Impotent.  A rapist.

The one thing that is guaranteed to piss him off more than anything else is to challenge his assertions of wealth, and not only did Wolf do it, she got the audience to help her.  Damn.

How funny were those jokes?  They varied, but the real humor is in the fact that she made those jokes, and the observation that those really are the ones that piss off Trump the most.

Yes, her audience was Donald Trump, and her goal was to hurt him as much as possible, so she wrote jokes and structured them in a way that maximized the psychological damage they would do to him.  Attack his wealth, and bring the audience in on it.  Don't just make the audience laugh at his assertions of wealth-- have them participate.  This really is his nightmare.

Remember, when he did the Comedy Central Roast, it was his contractual rule-- no jokes about his wealth.

Next, Wolf made a real observation at the end about the toxic-symbiotic relationship between the press and Trump.  Donald Trump is entirely a media creation.  He isn't a businessman.  He just plays one on tv.  He has been cultivating a celebrity image for decades, and the press failed in 2016 because of the image they created.  They had no idea how to cover someone whom they had built up, whom they had made famous for no real reason, who lied about everything, and crossed every line imaginable.  But, they made money off of him.  She's not wrong on that.  And every time Donald Trump says something stupid and vile, they still have a dilemma.  How much do they focus on that rather than, oh, say, policy?  What the fuck is happening with North Korea?  Is this for real?  I don't know, and I'm writing about a comedian making fun of Trump's bank account balances.  Then again, I specialize in American politics rather than international relations, so I'll throw some game theory at that soon, but this is more in my wheelhouse.  Still, Wolf makes a real point.  Trump wouldn't be where he is without the press building him up and covering the stupid shit he says in irresponsible ways rather than things of real importance...

... I write as I spend my Sunday morning discussing a comedy routine...

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

Clarence White, "Laughing Guitar," from Flatpick.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

House chaplain controversies and religion in politics

Yes, the House of Representatives has a chaplain.  Because... we do that.  Paul Ryan fired him for inserting lefty stuff into sermons.  They didn't expect that, and statistically, there is a reason.  Time for a quick lesson with stupid political science jargon because we must always have stupid jargon.


Once upon a time, sectarian divisions mattered.  I just had some students read Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland's The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., because I can.  Good book.  In it, a 16th Century Irish witch living in London is unable to accept the notion of a future in which the Catholic-Protestant division ceases to be the central division between everything, and yet... here we are.  It doesn't really define much of anything anymore.  What does?  "Religiosity."  Lousy word, but it refers to the centrality of religion in your life.  We measure it with variables like the frequency with which you attend services.  As recently as a few decades ago, the Catholic-Protestant division predicted a lot about your politics, so the choice of denomination for something like a chaplain was a real statement.  Today?  Eh.  Not as much.  There is variation within any denomination, but the real thing is religiosity.  People who are more religious are more Republican.

In 2016, according to National Election Studies survey data (yup, the same survey I always reference), those who claimed* to attend religious services every week voted for Trump over Clinton by a margin of 2 to 1-- 63% to 31.1%.  Among those who say they never attend services?  Clinton won their votes by 77.7% to 19.4%.

Why the difference?  There is a lot here, ranging from group identification to the issue positions associated with strong religious beliefs (e.g. opposition to abortion and gay marriage) to Republicans' strategic choices.  At the end of the day, though, religious people are much more likely to identify as Republican, leading to oddities like evangelicals embracing Donald Trump.

And yet, that relationship between religiosity and partisanship is strong enough that Republicans in Congress really aren't accustomed to having preachers say liberal-sounding stuff.  The current pope, when he isn't busy running his child molestation ring, occasionally makes liberals happy with similar statements to Conroy, but part of the closing of the Catholic-Protestant divide in American politics has been a focus on abortion and gay marriage within Catholicism, and that's the point here.  There have been a couple of Catholic chaplains, but changes in the structure of the political and religious coalitions have reduced the frequency with which conservatives have their beliefs challenged in religious services.

So, bye-bye Conroy.

*Yes, a bunch of these people are lying, but that's not the important point from a social scientific perspective.  The question is whether or not they are more religious than those who admit they don't go to church.  Look at the data.  Something big is going on here.

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

Sometimes, there really isn't much of a choice, is there?  Willie Nelson, "Time of the Preacher," from Red-Headed Stranger.

Friday, April 27, 2018

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

A little early and a little unusual, because I just read that Charles Neville died.

Pyrrhic movement on a bill to protect Mueller

Yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted for a bill that would make it more difficult for Trump to fire Mueller.  A few Republicans voted for it.  It won't pass.  What's going on here?

Remember that McConnell isn't going to let this get a floor vote, and the House?  They won't even schedule committee action on it.  This bill is dead, dead, dead.  So, why are Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and Thom Tillis bothering?

Some possibilities:

1)  They think they are "sending a message," or some such crap, to Trump.  If so, they are wrong.  The message to Trump is the fact that the bill won't get a floor vote, demonstrating that he can fire Mueller.  If the point were to send a message, the message would need to be, "fire Mueller, and here's what I will do afterwards."  Notice that we aren't hearing that.  This is why I don't actually think this is what is going on.

2)  They are attempting to signal partisan independence to voters.  You have probably heard and read a bunch of stuff about how everyone in the GOP is scared of primaries.  Empirically, though, extremists face bigger penalties in general elections.  The McCain trick was always to pick a fight on a few things with his own party, and that would allow him to get away with a lot.  Notice who's in this group?  McCain's little buddy, Lindsey Graham!  Of course, Flake is retiring, so that doesn't really explain him.

3)  Perhaps they are simply urging Trump to wait before firing Mueller.  Look, Lindsey Graham will let himself get beaten into submission by Trump.  He always does.  If Trump fires Mueller, Graham won't stand up to him.  Frankly, neither will Flake.  Remember how Flake was going to vote against the tax bill because it raised the deficit?  Yeah, how'd he vote on that?  Oh, right.  However, there is a reasonable chance that Mueller's investigation will get to a point at which Trump will need to fire him in order to protect himself, and the party will need to back Trump in order to protect themselves because, as I keep writing, Trump has an electoral bomb strapped to him, wired up with a dead-man trigger, and the entire party is chained to him.  That is the point at which the party will back him on firing Mueller.  They'll all claim he's a commie-ISIS agent, secretly orchestrating the conspiracy to falsify climate change data so that we accept fluoride in our water to sap and impurify all our precious bodily fluids, Mandrake!  (Do I have to link to that one?  Come on, people, it's a classic.)  Then, they'll let him fire Mueller, but not one second earlier.

4)  Ineffectual, whimpering, pathetic attempts by spineless people to convince themselves that they will fight when they know that they will, eventually, cave.  Donald Trump doesn't have many skills.  He does have one skill:  bullying.  He really is great at it.  He is outstanding at it.  Lindsey Graham always caves in the face of his bully, as does Jeff Flake.  Tillis has never bothered trying to stand up to Trump, and neither have most congressional Republicans.  They really are a weak and pathetic bunch.  Nobody wants to feel like that much of a victim, though.  So, Lindsey, Thom and Jeff are puffing up their chests and hoping that Trump doesn't fire Mueller, but that's about it.

At the end of the day, this bill is meaningless, as are the efforts of any Republican supporters because it has no chance of passage.  The only real question anyone should ask any Republican who claims to support the bill or oppose Mueller's firing is the following:  what will you do if and when Trump fires Mueller?  Nobody should be allowed to use McConnell's dodge.

What's the penalty?

And here's the problem.  Trump will make up some bullshit excuse for why he did it, and every Republican will go along with it.  Any Republican who answers my question with any wiggle room will claim that Trump's reason is within that wiggle room.

And that's what's going on.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Democrats in special elections and horseshoes

I appear to have skipped a post on that Arizona special election to replace Trent Franks.  We're all going to miss Trent, aren't we?  Lesko won.  It was a Republican district.  Tipirneni outperformed the partisan baseline.  So, yay Democrats!  You lost by less than expected, because politics are like horseshoes!  "Close" counts, right?  Or... not.

This is a pattern.  We have had a bunch of special elections, and at the beginning of the series, I warned about them being "shiny things."  Don't get distracted by them.  They are tempting because outside of an election season, they look like fun, but they don't mean much, individually anyway.  At what point, though, do we have a pattern?  What about Conor Lamb?  You know, the one who won?  (Doug Jones being a special case...)

There are two basic points here.  The more observations we have, the more evidence there is of Democratic overperformance (hold your horses, though...).  One data point means very little.  Two?  Eh...  Ten?  Now you're telling me something.  Social science is about looking for patterns.  Tipirneni lost.  Hence, Democrats have nothing to celebrate regarding that race.  The fact that she overperformed means nothing.  The fact that Democrats have been consistently overperforming in special elections may tell us something.

Note that I am still being cautious here, which brings me to the second point.  Special elections still occur under different circumstances from the general election in November.  Political attention is focused on one district rather than spread across the country.  That changes the dynamic, or at least, it can.  Why might that matter?  Consider the storyline.  Democrats are looking at races where they expect to lose, and celebrating for overperforming.  From the Republican perspective, who cares?  They still win, except against Conor Lamb, or when their candidate is a child rapist.  Get to November, when flippable seats come into play, and the Democratic argument is that they overperform by the same levels, but Republican responses change too, and that's the inference problem.  Turnout levels change non-uniformly,* lots of things change.  What does this mean for November?  We still don't know.  Democrats are likely to pick up seats.  Betting says they'll take the House.

Still, don't read too much into one, or even a few special elections.  My standard rules about focusing on shiny things apply.

Ooooh!  James Comey did a town hall!  Lemme watch that!

(No!  Bad political scientist!  Off the couch!)

*At some point, I'll do a post debunking the currently fashionable line of bullshit that midterm elections have an intrinsically Republican bias because of turnout.  This one became fashionable as an explanation for the 2010 election among people who didn't have a long enough political memory to see the problem of, oh, say, 2006.  The previous midterm.  Midterms run against the party of the president.  When the president is a Republican, the bias is towards the Democrats (unless you have something really weird, like 9/11 counteracting that).  Don't fall for this bullshit.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ronny Jackson and Trump's methods of hiring

When you hire people based on trivial appearances rather than qualifications, what do you expect?  Ronny Jackson gave a press conference in which he lauded Trump's health.  Trump thought he looked great on camera, so he picked Jackson to head the VA.  Gee... what could go wrong?

Let's combine two of my favorite things here:  social science and music.  On Monday, I made some references to a certain country-pop starlet's political controversies, but let's be blunt about the treatment of women in music.  A large portion of the music industry sells women as nothing but sex objects.  Twain got rich off of that, and to the degree that she was the one in control of her self-presentation, there are debates to be had about her place in popular culture, but the diminution of women's musical abilities has real consequences elsewhere.  Consider classical music.  It isn't really my thing, but it has the social scientific benefit of regimented auditions.  Getting a position in a classical orchestra requires a sequence of auditions.  Women, being treated as sex objects in American society (and western society more broadly), have faced discrimination.  They are less likely to be chosen, even at the same level of performance, which is easier to measure objectively in classical music because the music itself is more regimented.  (That's why I prefer jazz, but that's another matter).

So, what happens if auditions are conducted with the performer behind a screen so that you can't tell if the player is a man or a woman?  If everything were on the level, that wouldn't change anything, would it?  You know where this is going, right?

Here's a study on what happens when orchestras change their auditioning process so that you can't see who is performing.  Women get more positions.  Why?  Because the men doing the hiring aren't making sex-based assessments.

Does a person's ability to play viola have anything whatsoever to do with sex and/or gender?  I'd need to see a hell of a lot of evidence that it does in order to violate the scientific principle of defaulting to "no" here, and I'm not going to "Larry Summers" myself.  They put up screens, assessed people on ability, improved the hiring process, reduced discrimination, and music got better.

Notice that this isn't what Trump did with Ronny Jackson.  Why not?  Well, aside from the fact that Trump is incompetent, he treats everything like a tv show.  Because he isn't a businessman.  He's a tv performer.  He was looking for a fellow tv performer.

This is a tv show to Donald.  I wish I had a comment that sounded more pithy, unique, academic, or, whatever, but sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, the truth is just staring us in the face.  Donald Trump is a tv performer treating everything like he's still on a tv show.  He made the decision, admitting that it was because Jackson looked like he came from Hollywood casting.  When you make decisions this way, even in artistic fields like music, you don't get the best people, as Trump claimed he would.

Anyway, as I have said, I'm not much of a classical music person, but here's some Wednesday music.  Here's some Aretha.  Enjoy the beauty.  Oh, and notice that she's too busy at the keys to dance around.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Interpreting Rand Paul. Again.

It has been a while since I have had fun at Rand Paul's expense.  I suppose that is because the Senate has been rather passive of late.  Fortunately for me, Mike Pompeo came along.

Short version:  Rand Paul indicated that he wouldn't support Pompeo as Secretary of State because he's Rand Paul, and he's in the Drama Club.  During the healthcare debates, that was my term for the group consisting of Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson and Rand.  "I can't vote for this!  It's not conservative enough!  It would make me impure!  Oh, the drama!  Look at how dramatic I am!"

Damn, something must be wrong with my caps lock.  You get the point anyway.

None of them ever would have cast a pivotal vote against the legislation about which they were whining.  They just like to posture.  Rand Paul in particular is difficult to parse, so I spent posts like this one puzzling over his motives.

Anyway, Paul claims to be a libertarian.  He's not.  He's a conservative with a flare for the dramatic.  (If you can't tell, I prefer dark comedy.  You know, like modern politics!)

Paul originally opposed Pompeo ostensibly because Pompeo might be too much of a militarist.  A conversation with Trump brought Rand Paul into line.  Trump assured him that Pompeo would be a diplomat first.  Supposedly, that's what happened, and after the phone call, Rand Paul flipped his vote, allowing Pompeo to scrape out of the Foreign Relations Committee with some, um... skid marks.

Nothing about Pompeo's background suggests that he is diplomatically inclined.  And Trump?  He's... just Trump.  My point here is about Rand Paul.  He was turning into a pivotal voter in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  There was a mess about Chris Coons voting "present," but that's just procedure.  Rand Paul spared the GOP a major embarrassment.  Why?  Because at the end of the day, everything he says is for dramatic effect.  As I have been writing for years.

When it comes down to the vote, if his party needs him because he is the pivotal voter, he'll flip, and every word he spoke amid his posturing disappears into the fog of journalistic memory, which is roughly equivalent to that of a goldfish.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Rand Paul.

Damn.  I gotta get me some new references.

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

So, Iran today, I guess.

Youtube problem.  I was planning to put up some Ostad Elahi, but that seems to be difficult.  There just isn't much there, and some of the clips of his son aren't even embed-able.  Here's at least something.  My album recommendation is Cascade.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Politics, country music, and Donald Trump

Monday is blues day, but I can't help myself with this one.  Y'all know I sincerely love country music.  That Saturday music series is not an ironic thing.

I wish I didn't know this name, though:  Shania Twain.  Steve Earle once referred to her as "the highest paid lap-dancer in Nashville."  Pretty harsh, and he took flack for that.  He'd take even more today.  She isn't a serious musician, though.  She has very little musical talent, but producers understand that if they put her in certain types of outfits, and have her gyrate on stage... well... the pop side of country works just like any other pop genre in the video age.

Also, get off my lawn.

Anyway, Shania Twain gives us an interesting demonstration of the convoluted politics of music today.  She said that, were she a US citizen*, she would have voted for Trump.  Backlash ensued.  Twain apologized.

But, wait, you say!  Country is a Republican/conservative genre!  That's why Ted Cruz only listens to country!  A decade ago, a group called "The Dixie Chicks" made a statement about being embarrassed by George W. Bush, and backlash against them ensued because you can't do that in country music.  Huh?

Several points:

1)  Musical preferences, or any other non-political preferences aren't as politically predictive as you think.  The basic problem here is that people treat a statistical association, which can have a range of magnitudes, as though it were a 1-to-1 perfect predictor.  Nope.  This also has implications for that Facebook/Cambridge Analytica stuff.  In a previous post, I warned that the kind of data gathered wouldn't be all that helpful in a campaign.  This is a small demonstration of my point.  If you took their approach too seriously, you wouldn't expect a backlash against Shania Twain when she says she would have voted for Trump.

2)  Musicians and performers have niches.  Twain's is to get up on stage in front of as many people as possible and gyrate in certain costumes.  And she's Canadian.  She doesn't even really have much of a twang.  I don't go in for that nonsense that you have to be a southerner to be a country musician.  Gillian Welch may be the best around today, and she's from New York.  The thing is, though, that Twain is a very specific product, and that product is made to appeal to audiences across the political spectrum.  That's how she got rich and famous.  In contrast, Jason Isbell can sing songs like "White Man's World," and it won't piss off his fanbase because the rightwing, conservative Republican types you expect to listen to country music never listen to him in the first place.  He can sing whatever he wants.  Amanda Shires?  Not so much, and that's kind of the point there.  Twain, though, needs to be an apolitical product.  Otherwise, she's stepping out of her niche.  Isbell?  He might piss off one or two fans with "White Man's World," but most who listen were either with him already, or are willing to be challenged because you don't listen to Jason Isbell for the same reasons people watch Shania Twain.  Note the verb change.

3)  Twain's apology for her statement was interesting too.  She made a statement about having "no common moral beliefs" with Trump.  Quite an endorsement.  This says something, though.  You have to apologize for endorsing someone by saying that you have no common moral beliefs with him.  That's our Donny!  So, why support him?  She claimed that she found him "honest."



Not really earning any respect from me here...

Well, there's a rant.  Here's a sort-of tribute to Steve Earle from one of the great, young country musicians, Lydia Loveless.  Incidentally, she's from just down the road-- Columbus.

*She's Canadian, and I, as a US citizen, demand an apology.

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

Something slightly different.  Little Feat, "Apolitical Blues."  The live version, from Waiting for Columbus.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The DNC lawsuit against the Trump campaign

Because, why not?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doc Watson, "Froggie Went A-Courtin'"

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Giuliani cutting a deal with Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, that's not gonna happen either.

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

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

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

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

* I formally apologize to Alan Rickman for this comparison.

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

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

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

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

Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and a prominent political scientist

Walk into a bar.

Sorry.  I couldn't resist.

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

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

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

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

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

But then, could I tell?  Could you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Will Michael Cohen flip on Trump?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.  Just... no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, could I publish this?  Nope.

Too bad.

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

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

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

Monday, April 16, 2018

Why Trump might not fire Mueller

Short answer:  Devin Nunes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many congressional Republicans would turn on Trump?

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

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

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

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


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

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

So, why bother firing Mueller?

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

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

Big Bill Broonzy, "Get Away."

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Syria and "wagging the dog"

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

So, Wag the Dog, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 14, 2018

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

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

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

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

A couple of points to consider.

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

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

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

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

Two main possibilities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

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

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

Who will replace Paul Ryan?

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

I get to type it...

"The new Number 2."*

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

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

This could get ugly.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Paul Ryan's resignation


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what's the deal now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The political relevance of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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