Thursday, May 31, 2018

The importance of calling a lie, "a lie"

Matt Yglesias has an interesting piece up at Vox on Trump, lying, and whether or not it matters that we call his lies, "lies."  Yglesias's point, essentially, is that what matters is the issue of giving Trump the benefit of the doubt.  Trump is a known liar, and terminology is less important than recognizing that we should essentially treat his pronouncements as elephantshit, and reject them out of hand when they are obviously absurd and without evidentiary basis because Trump is a known liar.  What matters is not terminology, but our response.

I disagree.  I don't think they are separable.

Think of the word, "racist."  The label is a toxic one, and for years, people have gotten away with what we call "dog whistle" appeals to racism by putting just enough of a veneer on what they say to have some plausible deniability.  So, for example, talk about "welfare," and "lazy people," and you appeal to racists' images of African-Americans.  There is a great deal of political science research on the association between attitudes towards spending programs and racial attitudes, and how peoples' responses change when you use the word, "welfare."  It invokes images of race, and that invokes racial stereotypes.  Dog whistle politics, or in the terminology of David Sears, "symbolic politics."

However, people use dog whistles in politics to avoid being called racists because of the power of the accusation.  If a racist is called a "racist," he or she will object vehemently because we, as a society, have deemed racism to be among the greatest evils.  That accusation is a slur, and by collectively agreeing that it is a slur, and deeming it too harsh to be used unless discussing David Duke or other known members of the klan, we take it off the table.  Even when it is true.

The result?  The proliferation of symbolic racism, and eventually, everything festers into Donald Trump.

"Lie."  Oooooooh.  Harsh word, right?  We don't like calling something, "a lie," or calling someone, "a liar," do we?  No, we don't.  It's mean, and harsh.  Lies are bad.  Very bad.  So bad that when you make the accusation, you've gone too far.  It's the nuclear weapon of argumentation because it's such a bad accusation.

I call bullshit.  Who says it's off the table?  Who says we can't ever make the accusation?  Some people just lie.  Donald Trump lies all the time.  He does so more than any political figure we have ever seen.  It's not close.

You can't punish an offense if you can't even say its name because you consider it so verboten that the accusation can never be made.  When you go that far, you are telling people that they can lie to their hearts' contentment.  The reason Donald Trump lies as much as he does is that he knows that nobody will impose any sanctions on him for it.  Because nobody ever has.  Because so many people have trouble even saying the word, "lie."  We don't avoid the word, "murder," for murders.  Why can't we call a lie, "a lie?"

And if you can't even bring yourself to say, "lie," you won't do jack fucking shit to him when he does tell lies.  So he'll keep on telling lies.  And he'll keep on getting away with them.  As I keep writing, he'll get away with everything.  Everything.

If you are one of those people who is uncomfortable calling a lie, "a lie," you are part of the problem.  You have helped create a society in which liars get away with it.

I keep reading think-pieces on whether or not to call Trump, "a liar."  It's too late.  Society has deemed the accusation to be beyond the pale, and in so doing, it has enabled liars.  Think about this from the perspective of three categories.  Trumpists... don't care about facts.  They are disconnected from reality, and cannot be reached.  Those who oppose Trump already know he's a liar, but their assessments of his truthfulness are determined by their assessments of him based on other factors, like partisanship.  The independents and other "persuadables," as consultants will sometimes call them?  To them, politicians are expected to be at least somewhat dishonest, but calling someone "a liar" just sounds so harsh that you can't say it without backlash.  And there's no phrasing that can convey the depth and breadth of Trump's dishonesty, accurately, that won't cause the same backlash.

In trying to convey the extent of Trump's lying, we are constrained by a history of "tact" that has deemed the accusation of "lies" too harsh to make in any circumstance, and declared the word verboten.  Terminology matters.  Tact doesn't.

Tact:  not saying true stuff-- Chase, C.  (1998).  Killed By Death.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Roseanne, politics, racism and entertainment

I guess Roseanne is a racist.  Who knew?

Oh, you mean she's a Trump supporter?  Well, then of course she's a racist.  That's only partly a joke, but it gets at a real point, or rather, several.  I'll try to tackle a few, in some slightly different ways from what I have said before about the overlap between politics and entertainment.

On the first point, supporting Trump requires either being drawn to his racism, or tolerating it.  Roseanne is in the former camp, as are many in the country.  The entertainment industry is, for the most part, a left-leaning industry.  Why?  A subject for another day, but while there are segments of the entertainment industry (like conventional country music) that make a "safe space" for conservatives, although they'd hate the term, most of the entertainment industry is left-leaning.  Republicans decrying "Hollywood" are generally just looking for villains and trying to find a way to proclaim victimhood, which is hard to do given whom they represent, but most people in entertainment lean left.

The Roseanne revival was partly an attempt to portray a political perspective not generally shown because of the leanings of the entertainment industry.  There is some truth to this.  The problem is that when you give voice to Trump supporters, they tend to say what they believe, which is, um... racist stuff.

Remember Cliven Bundy?  Remember when Fox News and the rest of the Republican establishment tried to turn him into a crusader hero for freedom against federal tyranny?  And then someone left the camera on him too long, and this happened...

Have we learned our lesson here?  Have I made my point?  Good.  Moving on now.

My broader point is a return to the question of how we think of entertainment made by reprehensible people.  It wasn't just Roseanne recently.  You probably noticed Morgan Freeman.  Shit, so we can't watch Shawshank Redemption anymore either?  Fuck!


And this returns me to the problem on which I commented months ago.  That post addressed a range of people, from Charles Mingus to Lewis Carroll.  Horrible people all, and yet Mingus's recorded output is still jazz canon, and few authors' works are as prominent in popular culture as Carroll's.  Every time you read or watch anything related to Alice in Wonderland, do you think about what you are doing in relationship to the author?  For jazz snobs like me, can we listen to Mingus, or Miles Davis, or other horrible people without guilt?

That doesn't even scratch the surface, and you have no clue about the beliefs of most of the people whose entertainment you consume.

From a liberal perspective, when you find out, it's mostly cool with you because they mostly agree with you.  Conservatives sort of have to get used to consuming entertainment from people whose beliefs piss them off.  Otherwise, they're stuck with nobody but Ted Nugent, and the phrase, "fate worse than death" comes to mind.  (As we've learned from Roy Moore, they're mostly cool with the child molestation thing, so neither that nor Teddy's racism bugs conservatives...)

So what makes it OK to read Alice in Wonderland, or listen to Black Saint and the Sinner Lady?  Do you have to wait for Roseanne to die before you can go back and watch the original episodes, which were generally considered to be milestones in tv comedy?  Will you ever be able to watch Cosby without feeling sick, even after that rapist motherfucker drops dead?

No?  And yet, you'll live in a world surrounded by Alice in Wonderland?

As I wrote back in November, I'm still going to listen to Mingus, and Miles Davis, and even Hazmat Modine, even though that vile misogynist, Wade Schuman is still around, and will still prey on women.  Why?  Because... I don't know where else to draw a line.  I don't want to give any more money to that motherfucker, but I've already bought a bunch of his albums, and Mingus is dead, so what's the difference?  Music is music.

Now, though, let's ask another question.  Let's say that Roseanne weren't a comedian.  Let's say she were the most amazingly talented surgeon in the world.  You need a difficult operation.  Your life depends on it.  She goes on one of her racist rants right before you need to go under the knife.  Do you have Racist-Roseanne the Surgeon do it, or a lesser, non-racist do the surgery?

Yeah, that's what I thought.

It's a tv show, and tv sucks anyway.  (Hi!  I'm a hipster!)  There isn't much on the line.  For Trump supporters, there is something on the line-- seeing one of their own on tv, represented.  Note my phraseology.  Of course, one of their own is a paranoid, idiot racist, but still.  Apparently, there are enough of them to put Donny in the White House.

The flip side is the question of whether or not there is value to the marginalization of Roseanne.  Trump emboldens people like Roseanne to express their racism.  Did she become more racist over time, or just feel like she now has permission to express it because of Trump?  I have to go with the latter, and I don't think she's alone.  I don't think that there is significantly more racism in American society today than in the recent past.  People are just more comfortable expressing it.  Are we better off with it in the open so that it can be confronted?  Were we better off with the racists in hiding so that there was a phony veneer of civility?

I'll leave this post here, with that question.

And a reminder.  Plenty of the entertainers whom you like have abhorrent beliefs and behavior patterns in their lives.  You have a few choices.  You can either choose to separate products from their creators, interrogate the politics and lives of artists, or stick your fingers in your ears and say LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!!

I didn't say you had any good choices.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

On power and corruption, Part V: Losing is for losers

We're back again.  Never a dull moment these days.  Oh, for a dull moment.

In Part IV, I set up the basic problem of competing values for those who enable corruption by allowing those like Trump to attain and retain positions of power.  In order to remove them, you have to be willing to sacrifice something.  Non-corruption is a value.  If you don't actually value it, you won't sacrifice anything to achieve it, so you will tolerate any level of corruption on your own side, while decrying even the most minor violations by anyone with whom you have competing interests.

The basic principle I have set up, then, is that there are things that enablers are unwilling to lose.  When those goals are on the line, enablers will tolerate any and all corruption.

What is the most important issue to you?  Abortion?  Guns?  Water Fluoridation?

Climate change?  Nuclear weapons?

What makes it so important?  Number of lives at stake?  When I tried to look at Roy Moore from a social conservative's perspective, that was essentially my point.  If you treat abortion as a number-of-lives-at-stake issue because you have a theological belief that life begins at conception, then a lot of lives are at stake, and you can justify voting for even a reprehensible shitbag like Moore.  If you are reading a Trump-bashing political scientist's blog, even a contrarian one like mine, you probably aren't a bible-thumping right-winger, but substitute your favorite issue, and you might make the same choice.  If you're honest with yourself, you know it.

The enablers are those who basically just have a broad set of issues on which they won't accept a loss.  This is where we get to Levitsky & Ziblatt's How Democracies Die.  Ideological collusion.  It isn't just the psychopath at the top who kills democracy.  The problem?  Those who enable him in exchange for the policies that they get along the way.

The enablers are those who look at the corruption evident in someone like Trump and accept it because to do otherwise would be to accept policy loss.  I have regularly made a somewhat different argument than Levitsky & Ziblatt, focusing on the electoral consequences for the GOP if Trump were ever impeached, but the basic logic of accepting corruption in exchange for policy is compatible.  Once those electoral losses occur, they are followed by policy loss, so at the core, we're still in Levitsky & Ziblatt territory.  Ideological collusion.  No collusion, my ass.

Trump may very well shut down the Mueller investigation and destroy the independence of the DoJ to save himself, which would be a tragic blow to democracy.  And if that happens, the GOP will stand by and let it happen, and in many cases, cheer him on.

Why?  Because while some would say, in the abstract, that they value an independent DoJ, they care so much more about tax cuts and Supreme Court seats that there is no level of corruption that could possibly outweigh the value of even a tiny tax increase, or a single Supreme Court seat given the weights they ascribe to each within their utility functions.

That is what it is to be an enabler of corruption.  To say, you may lie, cheat and steal to your heart's content and destroy any democratic norm you want because I would rather have you do that than permit taxes to go up one penny on those whom I choose to protect.  (Note the selectivity within the 2018 tax bill).

How does one come up with such a weighting?  What are the consequences?  More to come...

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

Today seems like a day for a Malian musician who moved to France.  Boubacar Traore.  Here's the title cut from Sa Golo.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Trump, Kim and presidential bargaining

So, it's back on, right?  Or... not.  Or...

Stop listening to Donald Trump.  And that's today's main point.

After canceling the summit, Trump now says it may be back on.  What is going on?  Trump can't even commit to talking.  This shouldn't be a surprise since Trump can't commit to anyone or anything, and he lies about everything, but that's the point.

Who enforces contracts?  If you sign a contract within the US-- taking out a loan, etc.-- the US government will enforce the contract.  Basically, at gunpoint.  Break the contract, and you face legal action.  Fail to pay, and consequences escalate, but at the end of the process is that nice man in a uniform with a government-issued firearm enforcing the contract that you signed.

What about illegal contracts?  Like the ones you make with the mob?  OK, not you, personally, since I'm not casting aspersions, but people generally.  Those things exist.  Who enforces them?  Leg-breakers.  You know, like that creepy motherfucker that Cohen had go after Stormy Daniels to threaten her daughter.  That's all about asymmetric strength.

Of course, asymmetric strength also means you can alter the deal.

Don't make deals with Darth Vader.  He's stronger than you are, and he'll alter the deal.  You can't fuckin' trust him.

And that's a broader point in international relations.  Who enforces international agreements?  My country tells your country we'll pay.  We don't.  You say, "pay."  I say, "make me."  Who makes me?

Nobody.  Yeah, if enough countries get together to impose sanctions, that can hurt, but a) that's hard, and b) it takes a lot of countries to apply pressure successfully.

So, who enforces international agreements?  Nobody.

That leaves two primary factors.  First, there's asymmetric strength, and second, there's reputation.

Reputation matters a lot for presidents.  Richard Neustadt's view of presidential power from the book of that title is basically that power is all about the president's ability to bargain, which is derived largely from reputation.  A president's reputation is derived significantly from a history of sticking to agreements.  Break your past agreements, and nobody will work with you because they know you'll stab them in the back.

The only way anyone makes a deal with Darth Vader, knowing that he'll betray them, is asymmetric strength.  Does he have that?  Yup.  So, how do you counter that?  Use Force... Nukes.

OK, that one sucked.  I knew I was reaching for it, but my feet felt like they were stuck in ice.

Anyway, you don't need to be as strong.  You just need to be strong enough.  Having nukes doesn't make North Korea as strong as the US, but it gives them enough strength to deter an attack, and that's all they need.

Make an agreement with the US to give up their nukes, and a) nobody will enforce the US's side of it, b) Trump is a lying sack of shit, as are many of his compatriots, which means they can't be trusted to stick to "the deal," and c) if North Korea makes "the deal," they're open to attack.

Notice I kept putting, "the deal," in sarcastic quote marks.  Trump fetishizes "the deal" without having any clue about policy, or even what deals truly are.  There is no true deal here.  There never has been, and there never will be.  Trump thinks that being erratic makes him a brilliant negotiator.  It just emphasizes that he can't even be trusted on whether or not to meet and talk, and that undercuts any shred of credibility he may have had at the bargaining table, which wasn't much given that he is the most craven liar in political history.  He makes North Korean state propaganda look honest.

Lying worked to get him where he is because voters in this country are unfathomably stupid.  The problem is that Kim Jong Un, like every other world leader, is far smarter than Donald Trump.  None of them are stupid enough to believe a word out of his mouth.  They know that everything he says is a lie, and he emphasizes the fact that nobody can trust him when he pulls stupid antics like the on-again-off-again summit crap.

Will the summit happen?  I don't know, and I don't care.  Donald Trump is incompetent.  I'd rather have President Camacho.

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

T-Bone Walker, "It's A Lowdown Dirty Deal."  This one really is best to get from The Complete Capitol/Black & White Recordings.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

On power and corruption, Part IV: Competing values for enablers

Aaaaand we're back.  Interruptions abound.

When I left off with Part III, I observed that those who enable corruption by permitting corrupt people to remain in power do so at least in part because they rewrite their own moral codes to decide that whatever used to be unacceptable is now totally fine.  For example, Russia is the enemy!  No, they're not.  Putin is awesome!  Today, let's tackle a complication on that theme.  Does anyone ever really hold competing moral beliefs in the first place?

The world is complicated.  Competing moral beliefs come into conflict, making decisions difficult, and presenting us with moral quandaries all the time, right?  That's why life is hard.  How do I balance value A with value B?  Oh, no!  I need the advice of some old, wise person to guide me through this difficult time!  Kids, whatever you do, don't go to a Catholic priest!

Remember when presidential infidelity was a scandal?  "But it wasn't the sex, it was the lies!"  Yeah, Trump sets new land-speed records in the soon-to-be Olympic sport of competitive lying every morning when he fires up his twitter account.  He's the king of the sport.  He even does it while sitting on the throne!

How do we assess whether or not you truly value X?  Here's the real test.  What would you give up for it?  In economic terms, this really is how we do things.  When we want to assess your utility function for money, we ask questions like the following:  how much would you pay for a gamble that pays off at $20 with 50% probability.  If the answer is $10, then you are "risk neutral."  You treat a gain and a loss the same way, so the 50% probability is your tipping point.  We learn how much that bet is worth to you by how much you would give up to play, and that tells us how you make the trade, which tells us about how you assess risk.  That's the short version, but the concept is everywhere.  You tell me you value X.  In response, I ask: "what would you give up to get it?"

If you tell me that you want a politician who doesn't have his interns blow him, I ask, what policies would you give up for your no-presidential-intern-blowjob rule?

If the answer is, "nothing," then you don't really give a shit.

And if you think you have policy to gain by impeaching the president*, then you aren't demonstrating any principle.  The question is what happens when you encounter people like David Vitter, or... Trump?  Or, hell, most of the party eventually decided they were willing to live with Roy child-fuckin' Moore.  Why?  They weren't willing to sacrifice policy.  I understand that.  At the time, I wrote a piece trying to look at that Alabama election from the perspective of a social conservative in Alabama, and the basic point is that policy tradeoff and the logic of not making it.

You say you want someone who doesn't rape children.  What policies do you give up for it?  Mitch McConnell decided, eventually, he'd rather have a child rapist because he wasn't willing to give up anything for the sake of not having a child rapist in the Senate.  And Roy Moore was an asshole anyway.  Take away the child rape thing, and he still would have made McConnell's life miserable because he's a showboating, idiotic shitbag who wanted to get into the Senate to make McConnell miserable in the first place!  Moore's goal was to be more Ted Cruz than Ted Cruz.  To McConnell, none of that mattered.  What mattered?  Floor votes.

This is the logic of an enabler.  You decide what your central goals are, and don't sacrifice them for the sake of anything.  No law, and no principle of morality are more valuable than those central goals.

What about the possibility of treason?  Yes, we need to talk about that word.  Donald Trump may very well be compromised by a foreign government.  We know that his campaign, including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Don Jr. and others were in cahoots with the Russians.  We know that Trump has financial ties to the Russians, and is easily blackmailed because he lives such a sleazy life.  He has kept his financial records secret, and against the advice of every ethics lawyer everywhere, he has refused to either divest or make public his business dealings.  We have indictments, guilty pleas, his lawyer is so crooked the feds raided his office...

And amid all of this, the one person Trump will never criticize is one of the world's most despicable excuses for a human being:  Vladimir Putin, who intervened in the election to help Trump.

This is all confirmed with public information.

It does not mean that Trump is necessarily being blackmailed, but if you don't at least suspect that as a possibility, you either have some serious blinders on (see the previous posts in this series), or are stupid.

Mitch McConnell is not stupid.  Devin Nunes?  That dude is stupid.  McConnell?  Nope.  Very, very smart.

Yet, Mitch McConnell has Trump's back, and always will.  No matter what.  As I have written, the golden shower tape could come out, along with a secondary tape showing Trump handing national security secrets to Putin in exchange for keeping that former tape secret, and McConnell would still keep every single GOP Senator in line to prevent Trump from being removed from office through impeachment.

Even Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham and everybody's favorite phony "maverick," John McCain would still have Trump's back.  Yes, McCain now admits the Iraq war was a mistake.  Little late for that, Johnny-boy.  How about you ask the half-million or so dead people to forgive you for your mistake?  No, McCain will back Trump.  They all will.  No matter what.  Impeach Clinton for a blowjob?  Sure, but potential treason?  Don't even investigate if the president is a Republican.  Stonewall the investigation instead.

What does this tell you?  Return to the lottery analogy.  What would congressional Republicans-- who hold the real power-- pay for a president who has zero probability of having been bought or blackmailed by Putin?  In policy terms?

Nothin'.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.

Ceteris paribus, they'd rather have a president who isn't a Russian stooge, but what would they pay for it?  Not a fucking thing.  Again, I'm not talking about drooling numbskulls like Devin Nunes.  I'm talking about people like Mitch McConnell, who know that Trump is corrupt.  McConnell never liked Trump, and doesn't like him now.  If he could pull a switcheroo, distract Trump with a shiny thing so that he runs off into the distance, leaving Mike Pence to take the oath of office while Donny stares at the sun like the fuckin' idiot he was on eclipse day, yeah, McConnell would do it.

That's not the question.  The question is, what would McConnell give up to make that happen.

In policy terms.

If the answer is, "nothing," then he doesn't value having a president who isn't a fucking Russian stooge.  Intro Microeconomics.

We need to think, then, about policy, and policy loss.  More to come, with interruptions galore!  Because, well... because...

*Gingrich was booted by his own caucus because he was a fucking moron-- emphasis on "fucking," as in, fucking his own staffer at the time!  Where should the "a" have been in that sentence?  Hi, Callista!  Grammar zing!

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

Bill Monroe & Doc Watson, "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?" from Live Recordings, 1963-1980.  To be blunt, I'm not a huge Bill Monroe fan, which is weird for a bluegrass fanatic (and I most certainly am that).  Doc, though?  Doc was just the best.  Love Doc Watson.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The failure of the Kim-Trump summit

This was not the best case scenario, but it was the best plausible case scenario.

North Korea was never going to give up nuclear weapons.  Period.  I have explained that repeatedly, as have many others, with the only real difference being that I add the observation that dictators like Kim need to worry about internal revolt as well as external threats, and Kim's ability to keep the military in line is dependent on their perception that he knows how to keep us out of North Korea.  Nuclear weapons play to his domestic audience too.

Anyone who didn't understand his need to keep his nukes was an idiot.  So, the demand that Kim give up his nukes at the summit?  There was no point.  That brings me to how I concluded the "Political science & craziness" series, which I wrote back in 2016, before Trump was elected.  I keep referring back to it because I think it is an important tool for assessing Trump's "tactics," such as they are.

Full links to the series are below so that you don't have to go digging, but I concluded the series in Part V by pointing out the distinction between the bargaining advantages that seemingly crazy people can have, and the worst case scenarios.  A seemingly crazy person can get a bargaining advantage by making a loony threat that no sane person would make, and have it seem credible.  What happens, though, if you have a truly crazy person, and the person on the other end of the threat isn't capable of giving the looney-tune what he wants?  As I said in Part V, if a crazy guy demands my watch or he'll detonate a grenade, I'll give him my watch.  If he demands my whole arm, the problem is that I don't know how to detach that.  Have you read Thomas Schelling yet?  C'mon...  Trump was never going to get a Nobel, but Schelling got a real one, and yes, the Economics prize is a real one.*

What if Trump really had said, gimme your nukes or you go boom?


And there still might be an earth-shattering kaboom, giving Marvin his unobstructed view of Venus.

What do we take from this?  Well, here's an interesting observation that conflicts with something I said repeatedly in that series.  Trump backs down.  A lot.  As President, dude's a fuckin' coward.  He's even backing down on his trade war.  He's letting everyone push him around like the novice idiot that he is because he is more concerned with the bluster than the action.

It means that at some point soon, I'm going to revisit this, because I think I got a lot wrong here.  There was some basic political science here, all based on Schelling, which everyone should read.  It's a great book.  However, Trump as President?  Right now, I'm thinking I misread him.  He's a coward and a pathetic weakling, as all bullies truly are when pushed, and I didn't factor that into my observations sufficiently.

And that's way better than many of my concerns.

Anyway, for those who want to go back and don't feel like digging, here are the links to the "Political Science & Craziness" series.  At some point in the not-too-distant future, this will get revisited as, "Trump's a cowardly, blustering idiot rather than a kamikaze maniac," or something like that.  I dunno.  Stay tuned.  Maybe Putin blackmailed him into calming the fuck down!  If so, thanks, Vlady!

Anyway, links:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

*Let's not argue about the history of the Nobels and the later addition of the Economics prize.

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

Sometimes, my genre-to-day thing doesn't quite match up perfectly for the referential joke.  Still, this morning, you get two of the greatest guitarists of all time.  Chet Atkins & Jerry Reed with "Nut Sundae," from Me & Jerry.  (They did two duet albums, and the other was called, of course, Me & Chet).

Friday, May 25, 2018

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

There's really only one choice for today.  Miles Davis,  A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

More on the House immigration discharge petition

Well, I did warn of interruptions.

It looks like that discharge petition for the House immigration bill will get its 218 signatures, according to Roll Call.  What does that mean?

1)  It probably passes the House.

2)  The Senate?  Who knows?  That doesn't matter, though, because...

3)  Trump will veto anything.  As the article mentions, Trump's demand is his stupid, fucking wall that Mexico was supposed to fund as a condition to sign anything, and that ain't gonna happen, so this is all posturing anyway.  The political science term is "veto-bait."

4)  I warned earlier that Ryan's failure on the farm bill could help push the discharge petition over the top by showing his weakness, and that was right around a week ago. 

5)  What does this mean for the building coup attempt against Ryan?  I've been warning about that repeatedly.  Ryan is in some serious trouble.  If that immigration bill passes, without wall money, look for the Freedom Caucus to get their Boehners up and try to perform for their base again.  The best case Ryan will be able to make is that Trump will veto it, but Trump might get pissed about the bill making it out of the House, and turn on him anyway.  PredictIt currently has it at just over a coin toss that Ryan makes it through the year.  My investment advice remains the same:  well-diversified, passively-managed funds, but watch the timeline here.

On timeline matters, though, something to consider is that we are closing out the primary season.  That means it isn't quite as important for the Freedom Caucu...asians(?), yeah, Freedom Caucasians  to... perform for their base right now, and the value of kicking Ryan to the curb before 2019 is relatively low.

So, Ryan might be saved by the timeline.  Still, this is bad for Paulie.

Richard Fenno wrote a book about the new Republican congressional majority after the 1994 election, and the observation that chaos ensued because the 40-year stretch of Democratic dominance meant that nobody in the GOP knew how to be a governing party.  Least of all, Newton Leroy Gingrich.

Funny, but 24 years later, with only a four-year stretch of Democratic control between 2006 and 2010, the House GOP has gotten more inept.  (John Boehner excepted, but they ran him out of town on a rail, which is part of my point).

How does that even work?

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On power and corruption, Part III: The moral incentives of enablers

And after an interruption to discuss Paul Ryan, we're back.  As always with these things, expect interruptions.  Stuff happens.

Anyway, in Part II, I addressed the basic notion that if you know you are going to acquit a corrupt person, like Donald Trump, it is easier to do that, cognitively, if you avoid hearing any evidence of his guilt.  So, stonewall all investigations, tune out any sources of information that might tell you the truth, block out facts and create a general cloud of bullshit that obscures anyone's ability to pick out reality from the miasma of lies.  And, this is important, do this in part to save yourself the cognitive dissonance of having to acquit someone you know is guilty.  I mean, you could do the right thing, but... yeah, that ain't gonna happen.  Remember, we're talking about the enablers here.

There is, however, another approach.

If you can't rewrite the facts, rewrite your own moral code.  Mulligans all around!

He didn't do it.  What?  He did it?  Then it must have been OK.

How difficult is this?  Remarkably easy, judging by political history.  I write frequently about the difference between policy preferences and process preferences.  Consider, for example, the filibuster.  Is it a vital protection for the rights of the minority party, or the worst thing ever because it gets in the way of majority rule, and majority rule is the definition of democracy?

I've written about this kind of thing before.  Be careful about what you claim as a moral principle.  For so many people, it is situational because once you take an actual moral stance, it can come back to bite you.  And when it does, you have to decide whether or not you are willing to lose.

Democracy is actually all about that.  The important book here is Loser's Consent.  Go read it.  You really should.  Basically, everything goes to shit when one side decides that they aren't willing to accept a loss.  When you rewrite your moral code to decide that my side is right, no matter what, and anything is legitimate to keep my side in power, no matter what, because losing is illegitimate...

That way lies badness.

The basic point, though, is that peoples' morals are... flexible.

Have you ever done a bad thing in your life?  Yes.  What excuses did you make to protect your sense of self?  I'm not talking about what you told others.  I'm talking about what you tell yourself.  Maybe the pop-stuff by Dan Ariely here is less rigorous than my usual citations, but hey, this isn't my academic specialty.

And this is written into politics anyway.  You evaluate your friends and family more favorably for the same behavior than you would for strangers or people whom you have reason to dislike.  Add an adversarial context, like partisan politics and you magnify the effect.

Being morally consistent is very hard.  It is not the default.  All of the personal, cognitive and political incentives run against it.  Rewriting your moral code to suit the circumstances?  That's actually far easier, at least in cases that are maybe vaguely marginal.  That's how most human brains work.

The issue is that there are cases that are... not marginal.  What makes a particularly reprehensible enabler is full cognition of the facts of the case, and a conscious decision to engage in moral doublethink.  Consciously deciding to go from Russia-is-the-enemy to Putin-is-awesome and the Don Jr. meeting was cool because of Trump... that's rewriting the moral code.

As I said, though, we should not be surprised that this kind of thing happens.  It's just an extreme case.

After all, we regularly see the parties flip on which one likes the filibuster, and which one hates it.  Trump's enablers are just taking that basic impulse to unprecedented extremes, and they are doing so because losing is unthinkable to them.

That kind of gives you a hint at the direction this series is going, I guess.  And by "hint," I mean that I am thinking as I write.  Stay tuned!  Expect interruptions, though.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Paul Ryan, that coup possibility, and an I-told-you-so

Have you heard the rumors about a coup against Ryan because that immigration bill might reach a floor vote?


Back in September of 2017, I told you so.  And I've said it a bunch of times since, every time anyone says anything about immigration bills.

OK, I was maybe wrong about whether or not the bill gets a vote, but the result if it does?  That was clear.  Boehnerland.  One-way ticket, baby!

On power and corruption, Part II: The cognitive incentives of enablers

Welcome back for Part II of who-knows-how-many?

In Part I, I introduced the basic problem for this series.  In any institutional power structure, like, say, the US government, a reprehensible person might attain a position of power.  However, the most reprehensible people are the least interesting people to study.  The important ones to study are their enablers.  The ones who put those reprehensible people in power, and keep them there.

So, consider the GOP congressional delegation.  As I have been writing, over, and over, and over again, Trump will get away with it.  Everything.  Why?  2/3.  That pesky constitutional requirement.  The Democrats may have a slight edge for control of the House after the 2018 midterm elections, but I doubt they'd pass articles of impeachment, and even if they did, there is zero chance of reaching the 2/3 requirement for conviction in the Senate, because that would require Senate Republicans to go along with it.  That won't happen.  No matter what.

Those congressional Republicans are the enablers.  The people who have decided that Trump gets away with everything, for a variety of reasons, and that's the point.  If you aren't just a stone-cold sociopath (such people are uninteresting), how do you decide that a clearly corrupt person must be protected from any investigation or potential consequences of their actions?

The most expedient way is to convince yourself that there are no necessary consequences to impose.  You are doing right by protecting the corrupt person because, whatever else that person is, that person didn't commit crimes.  How do you do that, again, if you aren't a stone-cold sociopath?

There's a famous line from Upton Sinclair:  "It is difficult to get a man [again with this...] to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

People are remarkably bad at processing information, particularly when they have incentives to not process it.  If you know you have to acquit Trump, for example, you must convince yourself that blah, blah, blah, "fake news, HILLARY'S EMAILS," or something.  NO COLLUSION!!!  WITCH HUNT!!!  Bigly hands!  Don Jr.'s meeting with the Russians?  Flynn, Manafort, Roger Stone, all of that?  If you have to come to the conclusion that Trump and his people are all innocent and it's all "fake news," then you simply cannot process any such information.  You have to refuse to listen or understand.  Block out any discussion, shut down the Mueller investigation, or at least put a cloud around it with bullshit accusations about the FBI, and so forth.  Then, only watch Fox, where they will never talk about the tangled web of connections between Trump and Russia, the disconnect between the Rosenstein letter and what Trump said about Comey to Lester Holt, etc.

I had some... fun at Devin Nunes's expense, but from the Upton Sinclair point of view, if your goal is to avoid understanding, the whole point of that kind of thing is the lack of factual basis.

If you begin with the premise that a corrupt person must be found innocent because you cannot bear the political consequences of removing that person from office, that's a helluva lot easier if you convince yourself that there is no crime by participating in a grand obfuscation to make it easier to avoid having to process any facts.

So is it any wonder the congressional GOP is letting Trump pressure Rosenstein into a bullshit investigation into the FBI?  One of the most historically Republican federal agencies in existence?

The worst thing for any congressional Republican with any self-respect, from a psychological point of view, would be if Mueller, say, found the golden shower tape along with a tape of Trump promising Putin favors to avoid its release.  Congressional Republicans would still defend Trump.  They'd just really hate themselves for doing it.

That's why they have such strong cognitive incentives to avoid ever encountering any facts themselves.

It's easy for us to look at the clutter of bullshit and think that it's all about confusing the people Trump has duped among the populace, and that's a big part.  The bigger part, to be sure.

Think about people like John McCain and Bob Corker and Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham, though.  They'll all cave, no matter what.  They're not sociopaths, though.  They hate Trump.  Voting to acquit when you have been presented evidence of guilt gets psychologically harder, though, the stronger the evidence gets.

That's why none of them want to see any evidence.  Yes, the Senate panel at least admitted the Russians were trying to elect Trump with their meddling, making them somewhat less of a joke than the House panel, but there's still no willingness by Senate Republicans to look into Trump or his inner circle.  And there never will be.

Where's this series going?  Stay tuned.  I've got some ideas!  And coffee!  Lots, and lots of coffee!

Mmmmmm.... cauuuffee...*

*Yeah, I had to spell it that way or your mental pronunciation would have been off.  Funny how English works, right?

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

On power and corruption, Part I: The enablers are the ones to watch

I haven't done a series for a while.  I like these.

Trump's latest maneuvers pressuring Rosenstein to "investigate" the FBI shouldn't surprise anyone.  People in positions of power have power.  Call it the tautology of power.  It also means that challenging anyone in power is very, very difficult because they have institutional support structures designed to insulate them from the consequences of their misdeeds.

What about checks and balances, you say?

Yeah, those... don't work anymore.  And that's kind of my point.  So, at this point, we always turn to James Madison.  "If men [insert comment here] were angels, no government would be necessary.  If angels were to govern men [uh...] neither external nor internal controls over government would be necessary."

Donald Trump is a reprehensible... thing.  Remember those external and internal controls Madison mentioned, though.  Trump is such a piece of shit that it isn't even worth examining him for my purposes here.  Freud has been basically relegated to the scrapheap of psychology history, and that's saying something given the replication crisis (look it up, kids), but we're going Freudian today, because nobody is more penis-obsessed than Donny-boy.  More importantly, despite the colloquial use of the word, "ego," in Freudian terms, Trump is basically just "id."  Poorly developed ego, and no superego.  Just id.  He acts on base desires and impulses.  That means he is not really the one to examine.  Yet, he is in a position of power.

We, however, are not currently in a tribal warlord society in which the guy who can defeat anyone in deadly combat rules the tribe, even if he acts on pure id.  That's not how our polity works.  What allows someone like Trump to attain and hold a position of power?  He is put in a position of power, and allowed to keep it.

The important people to understand, then, are the enablers.  The support structure.  The corruption of someone like Donald Trump exists because other people in positions of power not only tolerate it, but protect him for their own reasons.  If you want to understand Trump's place in American politics, you need to understand who put him there, and who ensures that he is allowed to keep doing whatever he wants.  I'm not even talking about the voters.  I'm talking about the institutional figures.  In particular, the ones who understand that Trump is a sociopath.  Trumpists who actually, truly like the guy are uninteresting.  The ones who are important for us to understand are the ones who hate him, and know he is corrupt, but back him anyway.  Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan do not act on pure impulse.  They don't like or respect Trump.  They make conscious calculations that their incentives are to protect Trump-- a man they detest, don't respect, know is corrupt, but will go to the political ends of the earth to protect because they have made that political and moral calculation.

I'm going to do a series about this.  Let's get this thing going.  Where's it going?  I don't know.  To quote Indy, "I'm making this up as I go."

Tuesday music: A break from tradition, with more American music

Because... really.  I'm just not going to explain it.  Instead, I'm going to put up something quintessentially American.  Hendrix.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The New York Times and a math-fail

I just couldn't resist this one.  To those of you who can't bring yourselves to read anything critical of the GUN CONTROL NOW NOW NOW mentality, come on.  Keep reading.  It's intellectually healthy.  Some of you just stopped reading, though.  I know it.

"New Reality for High School Students: Calculating the Risk of Getting Shot."  If one were to read the headline alone, with a statistically-oriented mind, one might take this as an indication that people are finally realizing that the actual probability of getting shot in a school shooting is lower than the probability of dying of heart disease as a youth.  Really.  Denominators matter.  I've done the math on this for you before.  The risk of getting shot is very, very, very low.  Lower than the risk of texting and driving by far.  It's not even close.  So, worry way more about one than the other.  Strangely, though, the NYT article is about kids worrying about getting shot, with nary a word about how much danger they face every time they text and drive.  As I know they do.  And so do you.

And every time they do, they put you and me in danger too.  I... don't appreciate that.

Probability of X happening, estimated, is as follows:  number of occurrences divided by number of opportunities.  What makes an event "news?"  The fact that it is unusual.  School shootings are unusual given the number of opportunities.  You know what is more common?  Well, there's my normal thing about deaths by waterborne pathogens and malaria, which are a) far more deadly, and b) far easier to address for anyone who actually, truly, really, sincerely cares about saving lives.  Even then, though, as I wrote earlier, kids dying of heart disease.  It's so common it doesn't make the news.  That's why you don't think about it, and that's why they don't worry about it.

But it's a bigger risk.  Math says so.

And texting and driving?  A way bigger risk.  And that one is far more in their control because while you can't control another driver's irresponsible behavior, you can choose to drive responsibly yourself.  Certain people make fun of me for driving like a granny, but I get great insurance rates, at least!

Anyway, by focusing on the news stories, ignoring denominators and ignoring what is so common it doesn't get covered, people completely miss the point and fail to calculate risk.  This isn't calculating risk.  It is just getting scared about the wrong stuff because shootings are rare enough to get covered in the news, and texting-and-driving accidents are way too common to get covered by the news.

What should we be teaching high school students about shootings?  We should be teaching them the math.  The probability of getting hurt is very, very, very low.  Don't teach them to shit their pants about necrotizing fasciitis or ebola because they aren't going to get necrotizing fasciitis or ebola.  When there are news stories about necrotizing fasciitis or ebola, teach them the truth, and the truth includes the math.  Stop teaching people to panic about shit that ain't gonna happen.  Teach them the actual probability that X will happen.

Death by shootings among high school-aged kids happen.  They happen almost entirely outside of schools.  They happen in neighborhoods with high crime rates, and they happen when kids commit suicide with their parents' guns.  Those are separate issues from how scared kids should be in school.

School shootings, by the numbers, are very low-probability events.

"Calculating the risk" would mean taking into account the denominator.  I don't see that happening anywhere.

Now, by contrast, imagine if the murder rate in this country were zero.  Not low, but zero.  For 50 years.  With over 300,000,000 people in the country at the end of that period with regular population growth.  Then, for a period of several years, we had one murder a month.  In a country with 300,000,000+ people in it.  Every one of those murders would be a major national news story, right?  What would be the effect?  It would cause everyone to think that these murders are common.  I call this, "the paradox of news"-- news stories make everyone think that events are common when the thing that makes a story newsworthy is its rarity.  The result?  People freak out, hide in their houses, give everyone sidelong glances like everyone is out to get them or might soon snap in a true epidemic of paranoia, and... did you notice I didn't say anything about what the other causes of mortality were in this hypothetical alternative universe?  Wouldn't it make sense to look at that?  Yes.  By omitting that, I am forcing you to think about the denominator.  That's the point.  You don't get to ignore the denominator.

That's the difference between personal tragedies and that which justifies fear.  Just because we have tragedies occurring-- and they are tragic-- doesn't mean you need to be afraid of them happening to you.

Stop being afraid.  Stop teaching people to be afraid.  Stop enabling fear.  Stop encouraging fear.  You are afraid of the wrong things.  Always look at the denominator.

Your new homework assignment is something I haven't done in a while.  Go watch "Child Abduction Is Not Funny," from South Park's 6th season.  Parents see some news stories about child abduction, and freak out.  They decide they need to... build a wall around South Park.  Yeah...  That plays a little differently today.  They turn to the owner of the Chinese restaurant, because they're idiot, racist hicks.  Of course, he starts building it, and as he does, Mongolians show up, 'cuz...  Eventually, though, the news stories say that the abductions are usually from family members.  Parents freak out even more, kick the kids out of South Park, where they find that the Mongolians are actually kids who have been kicked out of the house by idiot parents who were afraid that the other parent was going to abduct them.

Hey, I've got an idea.  Let's look at denominators.  Instead of teaching kids in high school to freak the fuck out about school shootings, maybe we should teach them to calm down, explain to them how unlikely they are to be hurt, by the numbers, show them that, for example, texting and driving is way more dangerous than showing up to school, and generally, you know...

... teach them about how to assess risk without just reading headlines and assuming that what gets a headline does so because it's common.

The opposite is true.

Because you know what?  This freakout everyone is doing?  You're letting the terrorists school shooters win.

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

John Lee Hooker, "The Numbers," from John Lee Hooker Sings Blues.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Immigration and GOP leadership's weakness

Yesterday, I wrote about Ryan's failure on the farm bill.  Today, I have a relatively quick follow-up post.  This is really more of a question than a full observation.  I argued a while back that the discharge petition on the moderate/Democratic immigration bill is unlikely to work, partly because such tactics almost never work, and partly because Ryan is likely pushing back hard against it.

But... Ryan just had a big loss.  As I wrote yesterday, Ryan got rolled on the farm bill, and that kind of thing is rare.  That's a show of weakness.  Discharge petitions fail generally because majority party members are afraid that if they sign the petition, they face punishment.  This is all based on the perception of party strength.  Party strength, then, is sort of circular.  Convince people that you have strength, they back down, and you win, thereby exhibiting strength.

By failing, by getting rolled, Ryan demonstrated lack of strength.  To be sure, this was about a failure to count votes rather than a failure to impose discipline.  What Ryan should have done was get Scalise to do a proper vote count, realize that he didn't have the support for the bill, and pull the bill from the floor.  That's different from threatening punishment for those who voted no, and having those threats fail.  It still makes him look weak, though.

And that could undercut his ability to prevent vacillating Republicans from signing the immigration discharge petition.

I'm updating my assessment of the chances of that discharge petition making it through.  It won't matter, policy-wise, because even if it got through the Senate, Trump would veto it, but Ryan's farm bill failure could embolden enough Republicans to get that discharge petition over that hurdle.

Maybe?  It's... could it?  We don't really have obvious precedent here, or at least obvious to me.  Could failure produce failure on discharge petitions?  I'm just spitballing here.

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

A bluegrass supergroup!  Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O'Donovan and Sara Watkins, playing together under the banner of "I'm With Her."  How perfect is that?  Here's "Game To Lose," from See You Around.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Paul Ryan gets rolled

Terminology time.

"Getting rolled"-- this is when the majority party's leadership takes a position on a bill, and then loses.  It rarely happens, for a variety of reasons.  The main reason is that the Speaker can usually, you know, count.

The irony here is that Ryan got his public accolades as a budget guy.  It was all bullshit, but that was supposed to be his thing.  Budgets, if you actually do them, involve counting.

Winning votes means counting.  Hi, Steve Scalise!  You had one job!  Anyway, the party has to ask itself one question (punk):  Do I have a majority?  If I am trying to pass something and I don't have the votes, pull the bill from the floor, and wait until I do.  If I am trying to block something from passing, as the saying went, "just say no."  Majority party leaders have the ability to do either.  If they support the bill, just reschedule the vote.  If they oppose it, just bottle it up in committee, refuse to schedule action, etc.  The House of Representatives is majoritarian in the sense of being a majority party institution.

Of course, this requires the ability to...

Paul Ryan's side of the aisle doesn't like public television, so he never learned to count.  And, perhaps that explains yesterday.

The House Republican leadership cut a deal with the Freedom Caucus to let them have a doomed vote on their hardline immigration bill, in exchange for them not killing the farm bill.  So, Ryan thought that meant he could pass the farm bill yesterday.

Oopsies!  Maybe if Ryan had spent more time watching Sesame Street and less time reading Ayn Rand's bullshit rants on the gold standard, he would have known that he didn't have the votes.

He didn't have the votes.  The majority party rarely gets rolled.  On bills they oppose, they block consideration in the first place.  Bills they support, they cut deals and don't bring the bills to the floor until the votes are counted.

Paul Ryan is... no Nancy Pelosi, and no John Boehner.

John Boehner took a lot of guff for the number of times he pulled bills from the floor before the vote.  But, you see, that was the right move.  That was a Speaker not getting rolled.  That was a Speaker counting votes, accurately, responding accordingly and making sure that the outcome was the outcome he wanted.  John Boehner was a legislative badass.  He was working with a, um... batty caucus,* but he knew what he was doing.

Paul Ryan... well, one of the best bits from that Boehner Politico interview was about Dubya and Boehner.  Dubya asked if Boehner ever gave Ryan advice.  Boehner responded, yes, when Ryan called.  Dubya's response:  "He needs to call you more."

Remember when "the president is stupid" was just a joke?  You know, when he actually knew what HIV is?  Good times, good times.

*I wish I could have solved a basic problem in the construction of this recurring joke-- "moonbat" is the term for a wacko liberal extremist rather than a wacko conservative extremist.  That latter term would be "wingnut."  Sometimes, the joke just doesn't come together completely, but hey, this is free for you, and nobody is paying me for this, so don't complain when a joke doesn't land quite right.

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

Richard Buckner, "Roll," from his self-titled album.  This is the stripped-down version, which I prefer to the one on Devotion + Doubt, but almost any Buckner is good Buckner.

Friday, May 18, 2018

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

Tina Brooks, "Miss Haspzel," from True Blue.  Sorry, not my best, but I was listening to Tina this morning.

More House maneuvering on immigration

The House of Representatives is getting interesting.  Pay attention.

Two lines of legislation are sort-of moving.  Neither has any chance of getting enacted as policy, but weird things are happening.  The conservative faction is pushing for a vote on a bill that can't pass the House, and it looks like they're getting their doomed vote.  Why?  Posturing.  The bill is a hardline bill supported by the Freedom Caucus.

We have a simple explanation for this one.  David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection.  A lot of what happens in Congress isn't really about policy-making.  It's about electoral maneuvering.  Some votes are what he called position-taking votes.  You vote yes, not because the bill actually matters in any real sense, but because it signals something to voters.  Freedom Caucus people just want to signal to their base that they really, really, really agree with Trump about taxonomic classification of immigrants.

Then, there's the "moderate" faction.  As I wrote a week ago, there is a discharge petition circulating on a primarily Democratic-backed plan with some Republican support.  As I wrote, though, discharge petitions very rarely work, and none have worked since 2002.

Republican leaders caved to the Freedom Caucus.  Why?  Well, in part, they usually cave to the Freedom Caucus unless doing so means a debt ceiling breach or extended shutdown, but also, allowing a vote on a bill that will fail costs them nothing.

However, the fact that they have made that calculation raises an interesting point about the discharge petition.  In last week's post on the immigration issue, I raised the observation that the Democratic-backed bill has no chance of becoming law regardless of the discharge petition because even if it passed both the House and the Senate, Trump would veto it, and they have no chance of a veto override.  My interpretation last week, then, was that this was all a show of party strength.

There is, however, the "why bother?' interpretation.  The smarter thing for Ryan to do is to tell any legislator to sign or not sign, as they think their districts would like, let the bill get a vote, and if it passes (it probably would), so be it because Trump would veto it.  From an electoral perspective, the party's seat share is maximized by everyone catering to their districts.  If there were party-wide damage done by a Trump veto (the likely counter-argument here), that damage is done anyway every time Trump refers to immigrants as "animals," so just let anyone who improves their reelection prospects do so by signing the petition.  That way, anyone capable of separating themselves from Trump does so.  The policy outcome is the same either way.

That's the thing about a show of party strength.  There is no reason to do it when it doesn't flip the outcome, and with Trump as President, pressuring people not to sign the discharge petition doesn't flip the outcome because he'd veto the moderate bill anyway.

What does this mean?  I still default to the prediction that the discharge petition fails because so few succeed.  Reflexive shows of party strength, though, aren't really that smart.

Then again, Paul Ryan was never a contender for being a "great" Speaker.  He follows two great Speakers-- John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi.  Ryan?  We've had some lousy ones.  Newt Gingrich comes to mind, and, um... Dennis Hastert was a child molester, but Ryan is just barely muddling through.  Retiring?  Smartest thing he's ever done.

Anyway, what happens with this discharge petition?  At this point, I still lean towards thinking it fails, but it doesn't matter because of Donny-boy, which is really why it should pass.  Just let Donny-boy veto it.  That'd be my move in Ryan's position.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

On North Korea: Game theory still works. Sort of.

Will the Kim-Trump meeting still happen?  Who knows?  The point of this morning's post is an I-told-you-so about simple game theory and what will happen with North Korea.

My basic framework for explaining North Korea continues to be basic deterrence theory.  Kim Jong Un, like his predecessors, is quite sane.  Perhaps not a genius, but certainly stable.  He understands that nuclear weapons deter attacks.  Having them means he is safe from attack.  Giving them up would mean he would no longer be safe.  I have added the twist of the threat of internal revolt if he were no longer capable of fending off external threats because that is how strongman dictators work.  Over, and over again, I have used this framework, and historical references to Libya in contrast with the regimes we have toppled directly, in order to explain why Kim needs to keep his nuclear weapons.  The idea of him actually giving up his nuclear weapons never made logical sense.  See, for example, my posts here or here.

Ignore the rhetoric.  Ignore the show.  Game theory works.  Mostly.  Strongman dictators, and wannabe strongman dictators love to put on shows, but they are bullshit artists.  Ignore the distractions that bullshit artists try to create.  What are their incentives?  That's what game theory is about.  In this case, you don't even need all that highfalutin' fancy math I sometimes have to use to get my degree'd and pedigree'd ass published.  Basic logic will suffice.  Attacking a country with nukes would be way stupid.  Giving up weapons, like Libya did, doesn't protect you-- it invites internal revolt, backed by the US.  So, keep your nukes.  See?  No Greek symbols necessary.  Could I add some?  Sure.  Were this peer-reviewed, I would, but I'm just typing over my morning coffee.

The quirk, of course, is "the madman theory."  I wrote a lot about this in the "Political science & craziness" series back in August of 2016.  If Trump is crazy enough, nukes don't deter an attack, and this logic falls apart.  Or, if John Bolton is crazy enough, nukes don't deter an attack, and this logic falls apart.

Game theory is about predicting the behavior of rational actors.  Kim Jong Un is a rational actor.  He may or may not cancel the summit because he won't give up all of his nukes.  Why not?  He can't.  He'd get Gaddafi'ed, or otherwise wind up deposed/dead.  Game theory predicts his actions.  Why?  Because Kim, despite how he presents himself, is rational.  He attempts to act crazy, taking advantage of lessons from Thomas Schelling (see The Strategy of Conflict).

Trump?  That dude is nuts.  Game theory can't predict what he will say or do.  However, you can predict what he'll tweet by watching Fox News because that's all he does all day.  I wish that were a joke or even a slight exaggeration.  I really, really do.

So, what do we do with game theory when one actor is a rational psychopath and the other is a fuckwit psychopath?  Uh...


Anyway, for those interested, here are the links to the "Political Science & Craziness" series

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Understanding conflict within Democratic primaries

Some of the stories you may have read about yesterday's primaries boil down to a left versus center conflict within the Democratic Party.  To some degree, that exists.  To some degree, that conflict is one about adhering to sincere policy beliefs or making compromises for the sake of electability.  That, however, is missing the larger point about how elections work.

We can measure candidates' locations on the left-right spectrum.  It is a hell of a lot easier if they have served in at least a state legislature, but we can at least put legislators on a left-right spectrum.  In Congress, we political scientists mostly use the NOMINATE scale, developed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, but there are also times when something like the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action) or ACU (American Conservative Union) scores are useful.  Essentially, they just put people on the left-right spectrum based on voting patterns in the legislature because everything else is at least a smidge bullshit, although some candidate surveys do OK (Project Vote-Smart is reasonably good).

Do centrists have an electoral advantage?  Yes.  Yes, they do.  This has been tested, and replicated.  Ansolabehere, Snyder & Steward, American Journal of Political Science 2001, Canes-Wrone, Brady & Cogan, American Political Science Review 2002, and lots of stuff since then.  Centrists do better in elections.  This was a prediction from Anthony Downs's An Economic Theory of Democracy way back in 1957, and it's true.

It's just that the effect is kind of small.  That's not really what matters all that much in congressional elections.  You know what does?  In general elections, experience.  Candidates who have never held office before tend to get their asses handed to them in the general election, unless they are facing equally unqualified opponents.

The Democratic Party has been tying itself in knots over whether or not to go through the purification rituals that the Republican Party has been enduring for years.

Here's what political science research says:  centrism does help, electorally.  Only a little, though.  Experience matters a hell of a lot more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A brief note on sloganeering and Trump's potential ZTE bailout

No matter which news source you read-- even my beloved Roll Call-- yesterday gave you stories like this one.  Trump ran for President on "America first."  So, what's the deal with ZTE?

Ignore all slogans.  "America first" was never a policy, nor a guiding principle for policy.  Remember "logical constraints?"  Phil Converse, 1964.  "The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics."  Ideology is constraint.  To be an ideologue is to be constrained to take the policy positions of that ideology across issues.  A logical constraint is a principle from which we can derive policy positions, as opposed to psychologically-motivated connections or cue-taking.  "America first" is not a logical constraint.  It could be, but it isn't.  No slogan ever is.

One of the basic fallacies of political analysis is to treat political rhetoric as Conversian logical constraint, and then exhibit shock when that constraint is violated.  Rhetoric is worth examining if you care about it for its own sake.  I don't, which is why I tell you to ignore slogans.

Why don't I care about rhetoric?  I don't think it moves votes.  Elections swing on basic fundamental factors like the state of the economy, Abramowitz's "time for a change" variable, etc.  Rhetoric is just bullshit.  The only valid reasons to pay attention to it, then, are to debunk it, or psychoanalyze whoever uses it.

If your goal is to predict what Trump is going to do, though?  Nope.  Ignore what he says.  That may sound trivial because Trump is the most shameless, craven liar in history, but this actually holds for any politician.  Slogans are empty, regardless of who uses them.  If you want to know what a politician will do, look at their parties' platforms, their parties' history, the coalitions backing them, etc.

Anything but their fucking slogans.

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

Cheating day!  If Trump is cheating with China today, then so am I.  Here's Abigail Washburn, a bluegrass banjo player (and wife of Bela Fleck!) who spent a while traveling around and absorbing the music in China.  Here's "Overture," from Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet.  Bluegrass with Asian-influence.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Gina Haspel and torturing the English language

Is Pluto a planet?  WOW, let me tell you about how much I don't care.  Don't get me wrong.  I love space.  Space is fuckin' cool!  I love the concepts, I love the math!  And science fiction, man, it's all great.  I even listen to Sun Ra.  Space is awesome.  Is Pluto a planet?  I do not care.  According to a plausible definition of "planet," a planet is a body that has cleared its orbital path, and Pluto hasn't done that.  So, sorry buddy, but you're not a planet anymore.  I know I had to memorize you as a planet, and it was fun keeping track of whether you were 8 or 9, but if that's our definition now, you ain't no planet o' mine.  And I am totally fine with that.

A lot of people are strangely not.  People got really worked up when Pluto got de-planetified, and for today, I'm calling that a word because who's gonna stop me?  Gina Haspel?  Why does it matter to anyone how we define, "planet," or any other contested word?  Note the italicization.

In certain sub-disciplines of political science, they spend a great deal of time and effort worrying about "conceptualization."  On the other hand, when I teach my Research Methods course and the term, "conceptualization," comes up (as it must, by formal decree), it comes with the following line:  define your terms and move on.

You see, I am a quantitative political scientist, with a background in statistics, economics and game theory.  I don't really care what you call your variable.  Call it X, call it Y, call it, "Shirley," I don't care.  Just define your terms so that I will know what you mean when you write.

There is such a thing as being a jackass about this.  If you define "up" as down, or define "keyboard" as coffee, or define "fake news" as any news story you don't like, you are being a jackass.  However, there are plenty of contested terms in political science.  What is "democracy?"  What is a "revolution?"  Some people in my profession spend far too much of their time arguing about this.  My response?  Define your terms and move on.  If these terms are contested, then just pick one and get on with your life, or at least, don't bother me with this shit.

An ever-increasing number of years ago, I was sitting in a classroom at Berkeley, and Ray Wolfinger (a great political scientist who taught me many things, but not on this day) attempted to lead a discussion of David Truman's The Governmental Process.  He just kept repeating the question, "are women an interest group?"  The students very quickly came to the conclusion that it depended how you defined "interest group," but Ray kept repeating the question anyway as though it had some hidden insight, or because we hadn't gotten to the debate he wanted.  He did this occasionally.  Eventually, I think I might have literally banged my head on the table, and I detest misuse of the word, "literally."

I get really annoyed with pointless arguments about definitions.  Pick up a dictionary.  Such things still exist.  Words have multiple definitions, which are at least subtle shadings.  My hero, George Carlin, wrote his 7 words bit around the 7 words that he couldn't ever say on tv at the time because there were no accepted uses.  He could never get away with "fuck" at the time.  Consider, though, "dick," or, "pussy."  A name, or a cat?  Context.  That's why they didn't make his list.  So, despite the fact that the word, "pussy," makes people cringe more than the word, "tits," that latter word made Carlin's original list.  Why?  Context.  There wasn't a context in which it could have been used on tv at the time.  Language.  Context and meaning.

Our political debates, though, often wind up mired in "what is the meaning of X?"  The gay marriage debate got bogged down in that, wrongly.  Define, "marriage."  Wrong!  Opponents of gay marriage posed the issue as a question of "the definition of marriage," singular, as though there is one definition.  By allowing gay marriage, my marriage is "redefined."  Bullshit because there was never a single definition of "marriage" in the first place.  Why was this done?  It was the only way to pretend that letting gay couples get married imposes anything on anyone else.

We currently have another political definition game happening over transgender rights.  What does it mean to be male or female?  Sex versus gender, and all that.  That is actually a separate question from the bathroom access question, but note how the policy question has been confused with a definition question.  One is important.  The other isn't.

Oh, right, though.  Gina Haspel.  I was getting to her.  Waterboarding.  Is it, "torture?"  Obviously, that depends on how you define, "torture."  Can you redefine torture in order to make waterboarding, "not torture?"  George W. Bush's lawyers did!  Why?  Because George W. Bush hired them to torture the English language into doing exactly that!

Is this different from redefining Pluto, marriage, sex/gender, or any of that?  Yes, because "torture" is a crime.  If you redefine everything Haspel did and covered up in order to exclude them from the category of "crime" so as to exonerate her from criminal action, then you are doing something more than redefining "planet" for scholarly purposes, and doing something more than selecting among accepted definitions.

First, the purpose was not scholarly.  The whole Pluto thing was driven by the weirdness of Pluto itself.  Its orbit crosses over Neptune's, there's... crud around it, it is off the plane around which the other planets orbit... Pluto is just weird.  How the fuck did we come to call that a "planet," and how do we get a consistent definition?  It was a quest for a consistent definition.  The people who were bothered by Pluto's deplanetization were just people who memorized it as a kid and can't think scientifically.  Nobody started with the goal of deplanetizing Pluto and came up with the "clearing the orbital path" thing as a reverse-engineering trick.

That is, however, what happened with waterboarding.  Certain people in the executive branch basically said, "I wanna torture, but torture is illegal.  Give me a statement that says X is not torture so that I can do it."  SERE training exposed soldiers going into risky situations to waterboarding because states like North Korea do it to extract false confessions for propaganda purposes.  The administration's bullshit legal statements concluded that it can't be torture if we do it to our own soldiers in SERE training, ignoring its voluntary nature and very brief exposure, not to mention the fact that the whole point of including it in SERE training is that it is torture used by states like North Korea.  Oh, and we've prosecuted other states for doing it, as a war crime.

Next, selecting among accepted definitions is different from creating a new and clearly bullshit definition.  Scholars play around with existing definitions.  Too much, for my tastes.  Writing a new definition for the purposes of a carve-out, though?  That's not what even the worst excesses of sloppy scholarship would allow.

I hate arguing about the definitions of words.  We are, once again, arguing about the definition of "torture."  Please, make it stop.

I guarantee you, 100%, that if any "high value detainees" are captured, Trump will order them tortured, Gina Haspel will gladly do it because she's a fuckin' liar (never trust a spook), and there will be no checks whatsoever.  I don't give a flying fuck whether you call it "torture" or not.  It'll be illegal under US and international law, and nobody will be held accountable.

Definitional arguments are stupid.

And here's some bonus music for the day.  Frank Zappa, "The Torture Never Stops," from Zoot Allures.

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

Blind Willie McTell, "Painful Blues."

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Russian view of American democracy, from a visiting delegation

I've been meaning to write this, but, well...

Last week, I had a meeting with some Russians.  NO COLLUSION!!!  WITCH HUNT!!!

Anyway, they were a bunch of politically-involved types who wanted to talk to an American political science professor while in Cleveland.  They talked to me.  They had a translator, some creepy dude lurking around, and asked me some fun questions as I tried to explain the bizarreness of our political system.  I also asked them how they perceived our system.  Why?  American narcissism.

The most common thread in their comments was the existence, and in their minds, the problematic nature of having a system built around two political parties.  Why was that?  Did it reduce turnout?  (They really cared a lot about voter turnout)  Isn't it horrible?

I found myself in a room filled with Russian goo-goos.*  It was... strange.  Of the many complaints I have about politics today, the two-party system is not one of them, and I think you will probably find that many political scientists who study American politics are also fine with it.

So, a very brief overview.

First, why do we have it?  It is the electoral rule we use.  We use a simple plurality rule system, rather than proportional representation.  In a plurality rule system, whoever gets the most votes wins.  Yeah, we mess around with that with the electoral college, but at the state level, whoever gets the most votes within the state gets the electors for that state, except for Maine and Nebraska, but even there... I'm getting off track here.  Win a state, you get that state's electors.  Win a state as a senate candidate, you become a Senator, and so on.  We use a simple plurality rule.  In contrast, most other countries use proportional representation.  In that system, you vote for a party.  The proportion of seats that a party gets in the legislature is the proportion of the vote that it gets.  Yeah, there are mixes and complications, but this is the executive summary, and it has already gone on longer than Trump's attention could manage, so I'll leave it at that.  I have more to write, and I'm making a dent in my morning coffee.

Countries that use the plurality rule have a strong tendency towards two parties.  Use PR and you get more parties.  Maurice Duverger noticed this pattern, and in his honor, we call this "Duverger's law."  What does it take for a third party to get anywhere?  Either a major party has to collapse, like the Whigs did, or the third party has to be very geographically concentrated.  The southern Democrats were kind of like a third party for a while, through the mid-20th Century.  Geographic concentration.  Other than that, you get two parties.

I've written about Duverger before, and I teach about it, but it is worth repeating because so many people don't understand it, and it comes up all the time.  Including last week in my TOTALLY NON-COLLUDE-Y meeting with the Russians.

Does having two parties reduce turnout?  First, I don't care.  Turnout is a goo-goo thing.  The Russians were really interested in turnout, but I do not care in the slightest what the turnout rate is.  I care about having an election result that is representative of the population's preference, but the notion that low turnout intrinsically leads to bias is a statistical fallacy.  In fact, in many elections, if we ask the non-voters whom they preferred, add them in as hypothetical voters, and construct a hypothetical 100% turnout election, the winner would have won by a bigger margin.  However, the turnout rate for its own sake?  I don't give a rat's ass about that.  A rat's ass is organic material, biodegradable, and it would at least serve as some kind of compost.  That has a use.  A value.  A high turnout rate?  It is literally less use than the rectum of a rodent.  Would I rather have a high turnout rate or keep the rodent's rectum?  I'd keep the rodent's rectum rather than give it away.  Stop whining about turnout rates.

That aside, does the two-party system cause low turnout rates?  No.  There are other two party systems around the world, and they all have much higher turnout rates.  Consider Britain.  The Liberal Democrats have managed some power over the last few years, but mostly, the country has been a two-party system over the last century, with power going back and forth between the Conservatives and Labour.  And much higher turnout.  About which I don't care.  Remember:  rat's ass.  More valuable to me.

Why is our turnout low?  A question for another time.  Short answer:  Switzerland!

Anyway, what really bugged my Russian goo-goo friends (but not COLLUSION friends!!!) about the two-party structure was the notion that it limited representation.  If you don't really like either the Democrats or Republicans, then you are stuck up that thing that is more valuable to me than high turnout.

Well, observation 1 is that party is really about group identity, and in any given election year, between 80% and 90% of the population identify as affiliating with one of the two major parties.  So, we really aren't talking about that many people.  Between 10% and 20% of the population have to accept a compromise.

Yeah.  Compromise.  Deal with it.

At the end of the day, in any political system, there is one executive, and for any single policy debate, there is one outcome.  Even in PR, there is one governing coalition.  Suppose you really like the Hipster Douchebag Party, representing approximately 1% of the population.  Or maybe I'm just projecting here.  The HDP wants to make everybody listen to 1950s and 1960s jazz, force men to grow oddly-shaped facial hair, and speak in obscure cultural references that nobody gets in order to cause a total breakdown in social communication.  I am not a number, I am a free man!

OK, so obviously, I vote HDP, right?  What does that mean?  Absolutely nothing!  Which is what you are about to become!  (See what I did there?)

Small parties ain't leadin' but two things around PR systems.  Jack and shit, and jack left town!  (I'm really on a roll here!)

In order to have any influence on policy, a party in PR has to join a governing coalition because no party in PR ever gets an outright majority.  So, a bunch of parties get together, form an agreement on a platform, select a PM, cabinet, etc., and there's your government.  What do the small parties get?  In the governing coalition, not much.  Outside the governing coalition, nothing at all.  More importantly, that process-- the process of forming a coalition, is the process that happens before the election in a two-party system.

In a PR system, evangelical christian whatevers may have their own party.  Maybe they get into a governing coalition and set policy, maybe they don't.  Here, they are a part of the Republican Party.  What do they get?  Supreme Court seats when the GOP is in power, and a bunch of laws at the state level.  Are they getting laws passed at the federal level?  Not as much.  But, that's something.  Why?  They have a lot of votes within the coalition.  In PR, there may be a labor party.  Here?  They are part of the Democratic Party.  What do they get?  Less.  Mostly, it's about what the Republicans can't do when the Democrats are in power.  Why?  Labor isn't as organized.  Unions have been on the decline for decades.

This is all just coalition politics.  Parties are coalitions.  That's it.  In PR, coalitions are formed after the election.  In plurality rule systems, everything has to reduce to two parties before the election, so all of that coalition stuff has to happen before the elections.  That's really it.

So, do I care that there are only two parties?

No.  No, I don't.

I care that one of them is batshit crazy right now.  This from a guy who spent a long series of posts in July of 2017 arguing that the political system needs classical conservatism to balance out the worst impulses of liberalism, and that we are poorly served by its absence as the GOP descends into lunacy.

*Snarky term for "good government" advocate.