Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Rand Paul, Brett Kavanaugh, and dramatic structure

Rand Paul has admitted that he will vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh.  I could just write, "I told you so."  Or, I could be an extra-pretentious jackass.  Upon close consideration of my options, and deep reflection on how best to spend my morning whist quaffing deeply from the extraction of the bean of java...

Door number 2 it is!

In my last post on the subject, I reminded you, dear readers, that Rand Paul is nothing more than a charter member of the Senate's Drama Club, and his decision to pretend that he had yet to reach a decision on Kavanaugh's nomination was nothing more than Drama Club dramatics.

Yesterday, Master Thespian of the Senate, Rand Paul, announced that he had reached his decision.  Yes, he would vote yes.  Genius!

I am not entirely certain what theories of drama Senator Paul has studied in detail, but perhaps some education would be in order.  I am, after all, an educator!

Let us consider two prominent models of drrrrrrrrama.  (Is that how one types a tongue-roll?)  We must begin, of course, with Aristotle's Poetics.  Structure, for Aristotle, required two primary elements.  The complication, and the unrrrrrrravelling.  Er, sorry.  "Unravelling."  I'm being serious, now.  Watch me take this post seriously.  Anyway, the dramatic story consists of a sequence of logical steps in which each event follows naturally from the previous event.  The complication prevents the protagonist from achieving his (I'd make a correction here, but classical canon, so let's go with what Aristotle would have written) goal, after which the plot unravels.  There.  Aristotle in a nutshell.  ("In a nutshell!"  Hey, someone should use that in a play!  It sounds deep, but doesn't mean anything.  Drrrrrama!)  I have simplified greatly, but my coffee supply is limited.  I could get into simple versus complex plots, and... never mind.  Let's stick with the complication/unravelling structure for this morning's post.

Where is Rand's theory of dramatics?  Is he the protagonist?  If so, where was the complication?  You don't get to just dither about and pretend you don't know what you are going to do for the whole, damned play!  What kind of a shitty-ass play would that be?  I mean, you could throw in a line about nutshells, and even that would still bore the shit out of me.  Scrap that.  That's not the play.

If Rand isn't the protagonist, though, then he must be the complication in someone else's play.  Complications don't resolve themselves, though!  Think, Rand, think!  What kind of unravelling is this?!  This is not how drama works.  Read your Aristotle.

Or perhaps you prefer Gustav Freytag.  He was the gentleman who introduced the five-stage model of dramatics.  Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.  Where was the rising action?  All I got was some long-winded exposition, falling action... was there a climax in there?  Rand, buddy, all I have to say is...

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

Craziness in India.  Bassist, Jonas Hellborg is joined here by V. Selvaganesh for "Who Would You Like To Be?," from Good People in Times of Evil.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Trump's Michael Cohen problem

This is getting fun.  Not, "fun," in the sense of enjoying the direction of politics and society, because we're still searching for an implement to move ourselves through a fluid using Newtonian mechanics despite our vessel being mired in excrement rather than a more appropriate medium of travel for such a nation as ours.  I'm feeling extra-pretentious today!

Still, that tape of Trump and Cohen discussing the payoff was fun, wasn't it?  It revealed another Trump lie, which we knew to be a lie anyway, it probably shows a campaign finance violation, and those aren't even the good parts.  The good part is this:  Trump has a real Michael Cohen problem.  Cohen has dirt on him.  More than just this.  How do we know?  He was Trump's lawyer, and Trump is really corrupt.  There's more.  Is there good stuff?  That is difficult to say, since the good stuff is Russia stuff, and Cohen wasn't primary to the campaign, but Cohen was involved in paying off women, sending goons to threaten daughters, and things like that.  There's dirt.  Cohen is facing his own charges.  What's Trump to do?

The problem is this.  Trump's obvious way out is to pardon his way out.  To borrow from Jackie Brown, Cohen ain't got a doin' time type of disposition.  The normal way of handling a political pardon situation, though, is to do a little time, and then get your pardon.  Cohen is just a twitchy little bugger.  He wanted that pardon immediately, and he couldn't keep his cool the way Flynn appears to be doing.  So, Cohen is flipping.  How much has he already given up?  That's the problem.  If he has already given up everything he has, there is nothing to be gained by pardoning him, but if he still has dirt he hasn't given Mueller, then Trump's rational move would be to pardon Cohen despite the pride he'd have to swallow.

For Trump, though, loyalty to Trump is everything, and that creates an issue for him.  Now that Cohen has clearly crossed the line and flipped, at least partially, Trump isn't personally capable of swallowing his pride and pardoning the guy, even if it is the rational move, which he can't confirm anyway because he doesn't know how fully Cohen flipped.  That puts Trump's vengeance motive against his self-preservation motive, and for Trump, vengeance will always win out.

And in this case, he always has the option to pardon himself anyway, and congressional Republicans will never let him be impeached, so this is just all about two douchebags trying to get back at each other.

Given Trump, then, Cohen played this badly.  If he wanted that pardon, he needed to keep his mouth shut, do just a bit of time (no more than a year, if that), and then get his pardon.  Once he shows disloyalty, though, Trump can't bring himself to pardon the guy.  At this point, it isn't even clear that he should because Cohen may have already given everything to Mueller, in which case Trump gains nothing by pardoning him, and since he is guaranteed to get away scot-free anyway, how much is vengeance worth to him, and how much does he gain by preventing some embarrassment by shutting Cohen up, if he still can?

And Trump?  He misread that little twerp, who "ain't got a doin' time type of disposition."  Should he have just pardoned him immediately?  If he had done that, he would have faced an immediate demand for a pardon for Flynn and Manafort, at which point he would have needed to fire Rosenstein and bring in some flunky to replace Mueller, and then call it a day.  Cohen just threw this whole thing into Trumpian chaos.

Now, take this all with many crystals of sodium chloride, but preferably not a bath salt.  After all, it doesn't really matter what Cohen says, for our politics today.  Cohen could have a copy of the golden shower tape, and hand that to Mueller.  It still wouldn't get a single Republican in Congress to turn on Trump, and that means impeachment will never be on the table.

Like I said, this is just about two douchebags trying to screw each other over.  The good news is that at least one douchebag will be worse off at the end of this.

And I might as well add this.  Trump and his people say the tape was doctored.  Would Trump hire a guy as his lawyer who would doctor a tape?  Yes.  Yes, Trump would hire that kind of guy as his personal lawyer.  At the same time, when you imagined what was on that tape, wasn't that pretty much word-for-word what you expected?

Two douchebags.

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

John Cephas, Woody Mann and Orville Johnson, "Flip, Flop and Fly," from Together in Las Vegas.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The paused trade war with Europe

You may have noticed something odd about Trump's trade war with Europe.  It seems to be on hold.  A few assorted observations.

1.  One of the things I didn't expect about Trump as President is how often he backs down.  He caves a lot.

2.  This was an obvious time to cave since, you know, the EU doesn't actually have any of the supposedly "unfair" trade practices that Trump was telling them to end.  (Can you ever hear the word, "unfair," again after Trump?  Or, does it now just sound like, "bigly?")

3.  What Trump actually wants is to declare victory.  One of the most important lines for understanding Trump came from what he told his aides before assuming office.  According to the New York Times, "think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals."  This really is critical to understanding Trump.

4.  As long as Trump can spin an outcome as a victory, then, that's the only thing that matters to him.  This is how you negotiate with him, then.  You don't have to concede.  You don't have to give him anything.  North Korea didn't give him anything!  All you have to do is make sure he has a way to pretend that he won something.  Keep in mind that he is the most shameless, craven liar in history, and he will always claim that whatever happened, he won the biggest victory in the history of victories.

5.  What happened with Europe?  Jean-Claude Juncker actually used color-laden flash cards in an attempt to explain trade to Donny Trump.  Either those flash cards really succeeded where Wharton failed, or something else happened.  I'm going with Option B.  Trump is incapable of learning.  Someone explained to Trump that there is an easier path for him.

6.  Just declare victory!  He's going to lie anyway, so skip the tariffs, let the economy keep growing, which is the only thing keeping his presidency afloat, and declare victory now.

And here's where things get really scary for the GOP...

7.  As you may have noticed, I am... rather dismissive of the intellectual capacities of our Dear Leader.  Congressional Republicans are dumber than Donald Trump.

There.  I said it.  Let that sink it, with all of its disturbing implications.  Yes, among that crowd, Donny is what passes for the smart one.

Don't worry.  I'm going to wash my hands after I type this post, and say a thousand "Hail Newtons."  That's Isaac, not Leroy Gingrich.

OK, now here's what I mean.  Remember the GOP's healthcare debacles from 2017?  Why did that happen?  Well, right after the 2016 election, I kept writing that the easiest path for the party would be to do a few small-bore bills so that they could repeatedly declare victory, and never bother getting around to the "replace" part of "repeal-and-replace," because that was so obviously a scam anyway.  Repeal the employer mandate.  Yay, victory!  Repeal the medical device tax.  Yay, victory!  Keep digging through Obamacare and finding small pieces to repeal, hold press conferences every time Donny signs a new "repeal" component, wait for the novelty to wear off, and move on.  Point being, if you can't have a real victory, just declare victory.  This was my core argument, back from 2016, and through the healthcare mess of 2017.  Instead, the GOP kept stepping on rakes, Sideshow Bob-style.

Yeah, that's still funny.  Anyway, you know who appears to be doing this better?  I hate to say it, but...  Tr...  I can't type it.

Here's the thing, though.  No, trade wars are not good, and no, they are not easy to win.  You know what is at least better than fighting them?  Just declaring victory.  That's also smarter than what the GOP did in 2017 on healthcare.  Just declare victory.

So, Trump got himself into a mess by starting a trade war with Europe over some delusional nonsense.  What's the best way out?  Well, if you are Trump, just declare victory.  The trade war appears to be pausing.  Trump will declare victory.  And that makes him sm... smar...  less stupid than congressional Republicans.  He is handling this better than they handled healthcare last year.  Granted, that's a low bar, but hey, this is a party stupid enough to elect Donald Trump as President, so hey, what do you want?

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

Yes, mostly I ignore music awards, but I do love bluegrass.  The International Bluegrass Music Association does an annual award set, and they put out their nominees last week.  Here's a write-up of the 2019 nominees at No Depression.

Oopsies!  I meant 2018.  Sorry about that.  Here's the thing about the IBMA nominations.  The nominees are the same damned people every year.  Look, if you are reading this, that means you pay attention to my bluegrass posts, which means you know I am a big fan of a lot of these people.  Hell, the last two weeks in a row have featured Tim O'Brien in this spot, and Tim's got himself some nominations.  Why?  Because he's Tim O'Brien, and of course he's getting nominated.  By law, dobro player of the year nominations must go to Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes, who really are virtuosos on a different level from everyone else, but...

Come on, people.

Bluegrass is a traditionalist genre.  This isn't just the fact that Jerry Douglas is indisputably the best dobro player in history.  He is, but there's more going on here.  The IBMA is just a bunch of traditionalists, in every sense.  It is actually kind of amazing that they nominate the Punch Brothers, given how weird they are.  I think they've just been browbeaten into recognizing Chris Thile, as they have for however many years since he was in Nickel Creek.  Still, at the end of the day (year), when they nominate Punch Brothers, they're nominating Thile.  Yes, he is God of the Mandolin and a musical genius who will be remembered a century from now, and past that.

Really, though, what is the point of an annual award ceremony when they just nominate the same people every year for the same awards?  The only category that get my attention is the Emerging Artist category.  Occasionally, they have the courage to recognize someone interesting there.  Someone who isn't tradition-bound.

Like Billy Strings.  Buzz has been building around this kid for around a year, and he deserves it.  The IBMA tends to be too traditionalist to give the actual award to a weirdo like this guy, but I'm glad to see the nomination.  Check this out, and remember that in his day, Bill Monroe was the weirdo.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

How to talk about the economy to people who want to give Trump credit for GDP growth

Yes, GDP grew at 4.1% in the second quarter of 2018.  If you know absolutely nothing about economics, or how growth relates to the presidency in our system, you will be tempted to say that this must mean whoever most recently took the oath of office must somehow be doing a good job.


Of course Trump is going to brag.  Any president would, and Trump has three modes when speaking:  insulting, lying and bragging, so however much a normal president would brag when a 4.1% growth number comes out, Trump will take that level of braggadocio to unheard-of new heights.

So, here's how to deal with people who want to give Trump credit.  There are two types.  First, you've got your Trumpkins.  Don't bother talking to them.  They can't be reached with reason or facts, so there is no point trying.  Then, there are the wannabe balanced-centrist-types who think that they need to give Trump some praise some of the time because if they don't, it means they're just partisan hacks.  In principle, some of these people might be reachable with facts.  You have several avenues for reaching these people.

First, point out to them that they are inventing a fun, new logical fallacy:  pre hoc ergo propter hoc!  "Wait," you're thinking.  "Didn't that pompous, pedantic professor mean, post, not, pre?"  Nope.  I mean, yes, I'm pompous and pedantic, but I typed that correctly.  Incidentally, if you actually want to convince people, do this without the snark.  I suck at that.  I'm good at math and logic.  You can have the math and the snark, or the logic and the snark, all three consecutively or concurrently, but the snark is compulsory.  Extra bonus points for anyone who actually gets that reference.

Anyway, the point is to put a good quarter of GDP growth in historical perspective.  Here's GDP growth, going back through 1977, to capture Carter's entire Presidency.

There is absolutely no way to look at this graph, without politics, pick out the last 1.5 years and say, "wow, whoever is President now must be doing an awesome job!"  What you notice about those last six quarters is that they are within the broad historical range, not historically large growth, and they follow from a pattern of growth that has been consistent since the "Great Recession" ended formally in 2009.  (The technical definition of a recession is two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, indicated by shaded regions in all FRED graphs).  Trump campaigned in 2016 on the lie that the country was in shambles, but the economy was doing pretty well in 2016.  The economy was growing, and it has just kept growing, within the historical range.  To take credit for a pattern that began before he was inaugurated would be to argue, as I posed a moment ago, pre hoc ergo propter hoc.  Translated from Latin, "before this, therefore because of this."  Does that make any logical sense?  No.  Is that even possible?  No.  That's not just a flawed syllogism-- it is an impossibility of causation.  Trump can't go back in time and create growth that started in 2009.

Then, we look at the number.  4.1%.  Yes, that's bigger than the number has been in the last few quarters.  Trump is obsessed with... size, but of course, Obama's... GDP growth was... bigger, in several quarters.  There have been a lot of quarters over the period above with higher GDP growth.  In fact, look at Jimmy Carter!  The exact same quarter in his Presidency-- Q2 1978.  16.4%.  Suck on that, Trump!  Jimmy Carter beat you by a factor of 4!  You lost to Jimmy Carter!

Of course, that's not because Jimmy Carter was secretly an awesome President.  The economy just has weird spikes, and things happen.  Presidents have very little influence on the economy, except when acting in times of crisis.  The point, though, is that a quarter of 4.1% growth shouldn't signal to anyone that Trump is secretly an awesome President.

Not unless they want to heap four times as much praise on Jimmy Carter.  No.  I'm not going to do that.

So, what has Trump done?  Among the people who want to give him credit for the growing economy, you will get two answers:  tax cuts, and deregulation.  The de-regulation thing needs to get thrown out immediately.  This is straight-up bullshit.  There is no real evidence that you can get serious macroeconomic growth from the kind of willy-nilly deregulation in which the Trump administration has engaged.  Tax cuts are more complicated.  Here's what the tax cuts did.  They cut corporate taxes, mostly.  The result?  The stock market is doing great!  If you have money in the stock market, a bunch of credit goes to whoever gets credit for the tax cuts.

That's not Donny-boy.  He played zero part in the writing of that legislation.  They wrote that shit, by hand, on the margins of the page, at the last minute on the Senate floor.  If you asked Donny-boy to explain what was in the bill-- the technical details-- do you seriously think he could do it?  No.  He didn't know anything about the bill, and didn't care.  All he cared about was signing a bill that he could call a tax cut, but that would have happened with any Republican president.  If Trump had a stroke from eating too many buckets of fried chicken on his gaudy, solid-gold toilet (advised by his quack doctor, of course), the GOP could have Weekend at Donnie's-ed their way to the same outcome.  Grover Norquist used to say that all he wanted from a president was enough working digits to sign one of Paul Ryan's budgets, but if Pence were behind Trump's brain-dead body giving it a reach-around, so to speak, to hold that pen, Norquist would have been happy with that too.  And the outcome would have been the same.  Would it have been simpler, and more constitutionally safe to just have Pence take the oath of office?  Sure, but then you wouldn't have gotten those wonderful images, and I'm having fun this morning.

Donald Trump deserves zero credit for the content of the tax bill, and a tax cut would have passed with any Republican president and unified Republican government.  However, does that contribute to a slightly higher GDP growth number?  Possibly.  Econ 101 says it's the wrong thing to do when the economy is growing.  You pay down your debt when the economy is growing so that you have more room to run deficits when the next recession hits and you don't run the risk of crowding out future growth with interest rate increases, but it could.  Just not that much.  After all, 4.1% isn't out of line with recent past growth or historical growth, and businesses aren't doing the investment thing that had been promised.

A while back, I wrote this post, about what presidents can and cannot do to influence the economy.  Mostly, presidents matter in times of crisis.  Donald Trump came into office with a growing economy, contrary to his constant lying.  There hasn't been an external crisis to stop that growth, and he hasn't created enough of one to stop that growth.  The former condition can't hold forever.  Exogenous shocks occur.  As for the latter?  I'll get to his trade war tomorrow (probably), but it looks like he is backing away from the ledge, with Europe, at least.  A full-blown trade war really could put the kibosh on solid economic growth, and solid economic growth is the only thing keeping is presidency afloat, to the degree that it is.

Most people don't know enough about politics or economics to understand how... economically... impotent Trump is.  There isn't much he can do to influence the economy.  He could blow it up, though.  He might, but he hasn't yet.  He was fortunate enough to inherit a growing economy, just as he was fortunate enough to be born a rich, white male in a society that never lets rich, white men fail, no matter how stupid and vile they are.  And, most people are so poorly educated that they give credit or blame to the president for the state of the economy.

Funny.  You know, the whole point of capitalism rather than communism is that we don't have a centrally-run economy.  That way, one jackass doesn't run things into the ground when he becomes Supreme Leader.  The flip-side is that no one person gets credit for things running smoothly.

Capitalism just works.

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

Ryan Bingham, "Dollar A Day," from Mescalito.

Friday, July 27, 2018

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

Herbie Hancock, the title cut from Speak Like A Child.  And, as a bonus, here's a cover by the great Jaco Pastorius.  Subtle, I am not.

Jim Jordan's now-real campaign for Speaker of the House

Yes, people, this is happening.  I have been warning, for a while, that you cannot just assume that the next Speaker (if the GOP holds the House) would be McCarthy.  Here's the betting at PredictIt.  They give Jordan 13 cents on the dollar, factoring in Democratic and Republican chances!

So, Jim Jordan, "legislative terrorist," in John Boehner's immortal words, is now running for Speaker of the House.  And he is a legitimate contender.  Why?  The party has gone crazy.  He aided and abetted a sexual predator at Ohio State.  Fine.  "Allegedly."  (Really, he's guilty...)  And aside from that, he's off his rocker.  For the party of Roy Moore, what's not to love?

Will it happen?  Like I said, don't discount this.  Let's just work through the mechanics, though.  PredictIt currently puts the odds of Ryan making it through 2018 at 4-1.  It is highly unlikely that anything happens to displace Ryan before the end of the year because there is no reason for anyone to force him out.  There is no gain.  Congress isn't doing anything, so there is nothing to accomplish through a coup.  Why go through the rigamarole?  Unless someone digs up a picture of Paulie performing CPR to rescue someone who just crossed the Rio Grande, or some other wingnut apostasy, he's safe through 2018, and what are the chances of that?

Then, there's November.  In order for Jordan's campaign to really matter, the GOP would need to hold the House.  Who runs the House after the midterms?  Give a slight edge to the Democrats right now.  How slight?  I put it at about 60-40 right now, which is slightly closer than the betting at PredictIt.  So, within that 40%, what happens?  That's where you have the battle between McCarthy, Scalise, Jordan, and whoever the hell else throws their hood in the ring.  Oops!  Did I type, "hood?"  I meant, "hat."  Oopsies!  You know, I really should go back and edit that.  Bad me!  Bad blogger!

Anyway, remember that the way these things work is that the Speaker is elected by majority vote in the chamber, not plurality vote.  The majority party holds an informal vote to see who has the most support, the rest of the candidates drop out, and then there is a formal chamber vote, and the majority party votes for their chosen candidate.  There can be a few protest votes, as long as there aren't enough defectors to screw it up.  What happens, though, if Jordan is just a douchebag?

Scratch that.  We know Jordan is a douchebag.  What happens if Jordan's douchebaggery plays out as follows.  He tells his little munchkins to vote only for him and nobody else.  If they are sufficiently obstinate, Jordan could become Speaker by forcing the rest of the party to submit to the will of the Freedom Caucus.  It has happened before...

Or, Jordan uses his candidacy to screw over McCarthy.  The Freedom Caucus is why we wound up with Ryan!  Remember that McCarthy was next in line after Boehner, and everyone just assumed that McCarthy would get it.  Well, I didn't, and I wasn't even allowed to include my skepticism in a Monkey Cage post on the topic!  So, Jordan could use this as a rallying move to get the Freedom Caucus voting as a bloc against McCarthy, and turning towards Scalise, who has described himself as David Duke without the baggage.  Quite a trick, since I basically think of Duke as Samsonite for racists, in which case the set of non-baggage-portioned Duke is an empty set, but nobody intelligent ever said Scalise was intelligent.

The thing about Jordan's campaign, then, is to remember that the majority rule for speakership, combined with the blind loyalty of the Freedom Caucus means he can mess things up just by being in the race.  What effect does that have?  Obviously, that depends on whether or not the GOP holds the House, but the fact that Jordan even matters is a testament to how crazy that party has gotten.

His campaign slogan might as well be, "at least I wasn't the one to touch 'em!"  That's better than Hastert, right?  These people...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Understanding conservatism today, via the Freedom Caucus

It is time, once again, to pick on David Hopkins and Matt Grossman, who have gotten a great deal of attention for an argument that the Democratic Party is a coalition of interest groups, whereas the Republican Party is an ideological movement that seeks purity above all else.  Hence, the Republican Party has moved more to the extreme than the Democratic Party.

Yesterday, the Freedom Caucus introduced articles of impeachment for Rod Rosenstein.  Why?  Partly, they're nuts.  Remember that these are the people who drove John Boehner from office for being too good at his job.  What is really going on here, though, is that the group of Republicans most under Trump's spell is the House Freedom Caucus, so the group most committed to his bullshit about the Mueller investigation being a "witch hunt" is the group that Boehner called "knuckleheads."  Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows, those guys.  Oh, and my favorite, Louie Gohmert.  Love that guy!  Anyway, these guys want Rosenstein gone so that Mueller's ass gets canned.

There is nobody in the Republican Party more fully committed to Trump's defense, and to the loony conspiracy theories that Trump has spouted to get the party circling the wagons, than the Freedom Caucus.  Let's examine that, because this tells us something important about the nature of the party.

The Freedom Caucus, versus Mitch McConnell.  Think about that distinction.  Mitch McConnell cares about the power of the Republican Party.  He will do whatever it takes to maintain that power.  The Freedom Caucus?  This is supposed to be the hardcore ideologues-- the ones most committed to conservative principles.

Why do they love Trump so much?  Keep in mind that Trump just keeps on raising taxes.  Those tariffs he just said are so great?  Those are taxes.  On Americans.  That's how tariffs work.  You force American consumers (or businesses, for producer goods or intermediate goods) to pay taxes on anything imported in order to disincentivize buying foreign goods, but those are taxes.*  This is the party that hates taxes more than they hate nazis.  Very fine people indeed, right, Donny-boy?

So, why do they love tax-raisin' Donny so much?  He is impureUnclean.  In as many senses of those words as there are.  The answer is one of the following three things:  either there is some other policy that they take to be more important (e.g. victory with Supreme Court appointments), they're too stupid to understand what tariffs actually are (plausible, given how stupid Freedom Caucus members are), or extreme conservatism, and the Republican Party in general, isn't about ideological purity so much as antipathy to Democrats and the groups who make up that party.  Given the role of racial resentment in the 2016 election, the nature of immigration politics right now, and Trump's political rise... I'm kinda goin' with door number 3 here, but even door number 1 would be excessive tolerance for impurity, and challenge the Grossman & Hopkins model.

Look.  White identity politics is group politics.  It isn't about ideological purity or principle or any of that.  The Freedom Caucus is Trump's most staunch base on the House.  They love him.  They love him, despite the fact that he raises taxes because, above all else, he antagonizes those they hate.  Democrats, and minorities.  As Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have observed, partisanship is now largely about "negative partisanship," meaning antipathy towards the opposing party rather than positive affect towards one's own party.  Donald Trump spews hate at a volume and intensity that no politician has since the days of the segregationist south, and it is heroin to a group of addicts who have been taking methadone for decades, craving the high of their drug of old.  They don't care that he raises taxes.  They don't care that he subordinates the country to Vladimir Putin.  They don't care about any of that.  As long as he spews hate at Democrats, the media, and most of all, minorities, the Freedom Caucus will love him.  They're prayin' to their junkiemaker.

And they will do anything to defend him.  That's not an ideological movement seeking purity.  That's group identity politics.  The Freedom Caucus wants Rod Rosenstein's head, not because there is any conservative principle at stake, but to defend the most effectively aggressive warrior for white identity politics this country has seen in decades.

I really don't like having to write this kind of stuff.  I'm a numbers guy.  I like being the contrarian who tells you that your intuition is wrong, here's some cool research to show you the basic stability and sensibility of the political system, and so forth.  Like I've been saying, though, the Trump era upends everything.  This is nuts.

*There will be a post soon about Trump blinking on his trade war with the EU.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Free speech and the concept of taking offense

Two stories today, which I will connect through the concept of "taking offense."  First, Kansas is going nuts over Josephine Meckseper's "Flag 2," which is an art project that conservatives call flag desecration.  Outrage!  (Hey, let's ask their hero, Antonin Scalia, about flag desecration.  Tony, buddy?  What'd you have to say about that in Texas v. Johnson?)  On the other side, Mike Cernovich decided to go digging through James Gunn's past social media stuff to see if he could find anything that could be deemed "offensive."  He succeeded, and now Gunn won't direct the third Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  One might ask, what kind of person goes digging through another's past social media accounts to look for reasons to get offended, because... really...  and Cernovich is a special case.  The answer to my question is a troll like Cernovich would do something like that in a petty and misdirected vengeance scheme, but that's not really the point of today's post.  If you don't remember who Cernovich is, go read about that reprehensible thing elsewhere.  The point of today's post is the concept of taking offense.

I reject the concept as a valid standard for evaluating words, statements, artistic projects, or anything else that can, in any way, be classified as "speech," and not just in a legal sense.  In a moral and ethical sense.  It is one of the few moral and ethical stances that I take publicly.

Here's why.  I say something to which you take "offense."  You tell me that you take offense.  I respond that I take offense at you telling me that you take offense.  Whose offense wins the battle of offense-taking?

My offense is not a flippant response.  I object to any attempt to tell me what I can and cannot say.  I hold free speech as a vital principle, and not merely in a legal sense.  Here's a common XKCD cartoon used by people to explain "free speech."  Randall Munroe is a little bit of an asshole.  I love XKCD, but in this case, no.  Randall Munroe is kind of an asshole.

Government power is not the only kind of power.  There is economic power.  There is the economic power of an employer over an employee, for example.  Remember Google and the employee fired for his sexist memo?  There is social power in numbers.  To use brute power to shut down speech that you find "offensive" and then hide behind legalism does not exonerate you morally, in my eyes.  Power is power, and I make no moral distinction.  If you believe in free speech, then you can make no moral distinction between governments using their power to shut down speech, employers using their power to shut down speech, crowds using their power to shut down speech, and so forth.  If you try to shut down speech merely because you deem it "offensive," and then hide behind legalism and say it's OK because you aren't the government, no, Randall.  You are the asshole.  And you don't truly believe in the principle of free speech.  If there is speech that you don't like, don't listen.  Marketplace of ideas.  Oliver Wendell Holmes.  You don't try to use power to shut down speech you don't like, and then hide behind what the First Amendment doesn't prohibit you from doing.  Not if you have a commitment to the principle of free speech.

If you tell me that you are offended, so what?  I am offended by your statement that you are offended, because you are trying to control my speech, socially, and that cuts against one of my core principles.  I'm 100% serious.  (Yes, that does happen occasionally).  Does my offense mean that you should be prohibited from telling me that you are offended?  Fuck no.  It just means that the concept of offense cannot be a guiding principle for determining who is right.  Otherwise, you are offended.  Therefore, you are right.  But, I am offended that you say you are offended, so I am right.  But, you are offended at my expression of offense at your offense, so...  Round, and round we go.

As a logical principle, taking offense cannot be a guiding principle for anything.  You would wind up in a logical loop.

And to anyone who says that the number of people who are offended matters, is it "offensive" for interracial couples to express affection publicly in racist areas, as just one example?  That's where you wind up once you start down that road. 

Or, you can give up on this silly concept of "taking offense."

Anyone up for some Frank Zappa?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Being a political science professor in the Trump era

I have written about this a few times before, but it is time for another post, prompted by a nice piece over at Roll Call.

There are two models for how a professor should treat his or her underlying political beliefs:  put them all on the table, and let students (or any other audience members) take them into consideration, or obscure them, and let the logic and observations speak for themselves.  The former approach is the one favored by theorists like Max Weber.  Your biases are always there, so let them be known, and let the audience adjust for them.  Fine, as far as it goes, but here's the problem, in politics.  Audience members look for simplistic reasons to reject uncomfortable claims, and if those claims are made by an ideological opponent, then the audience will do so, not on the basis of logic or evidence, but on the basis of who made the argument.  Similarly, audience members prone to trust an ideological ally will fail to show the proper scientific skepticism of claims made by that perceived ally, when they need to be especially careful.  That, too, is a problem.  Don't trust me, just because you think I might be on your side!  My solution, prior to Trump, was to put nothing on the table other than the logic and evidence.

Trump really has changed a lot, for so many in this profession.  It pressed my model to a breaking point.  There is a point at which failure to cast moral judgment becomes moral judgment, and the more despicable a person gets, the more neutrality itself becomes normative evaluation.  Complicity.

The breaking point for my classroom model was the Access Hollywood tape.  It was not "just locker-room talk," and anyone stupid enough to believe that lie has no place in intellectual discourse, although the same can be said for almost anything that comes out of Trump's mouth, but that's kind of the point about Trump and what the article refers to as norm-breaking behavior.  His over-the-top lying is norm-breaking.  It also crosses moral and ethical lines that cannot be ignored, as does his over-the-top racism.  Let's be clear, though.  The problem is not that he said the word, "pussy," nor that the comment was, "lewd."  I detest the lazy journalistic tic of referring to the comments as, "lewd," as a dodge because some useless dipshit in Standards & Practices told the journalists they can't say what the now-President said.  The problem wasn't his diction.  The problem was that he bragged about his ability to get away with sexual assault.  I don't care what wording you use.  I care about actions.  I have no respect for pearl-clutchers who enable Trump's predations by drawing attention away from his violence by falsely describing his comments as "lewd."  The problem isn't the word, "pussy."  The problem is the assault, and the bragging about his ability to get away with it.

And notice that he does get away with everything.  Anyone more focused on the word, "pussy," than the violence of the act is part of the reason why.

My point is that, when the major party nominee, and now-President is someone who brags about sexual assault, lies about everything, goes over-the-top with his racism, and so forth, the cast-no-judgment model cannot work.  Failure to cast judgment on someone like Trump is to permit him a status that he does not deserve.  Donald Trump is a special kind of monster.  It is the only thing truly special about him.

In the past week, it has become increasingly difficult for even Republicans like Will Hurd to ignore that the President of the United States is subservient to a hostile foreign power.  The phrase, "this is not normal" does not begin to convey how problematic Trump's behavior is.  Those of us who study empirical reality have a very difficult time dealing with this.  We don't want to walk into the classroom and just have to deal with the daily vileness of Trump, but at the same time, we have an obligation to empirical reality.  We cannot pretend that 2 + 2 might be 5 just because the Republican Party has decided that it must defend every Trump lie.  And yes, he's just lying.  It is as simple as that.  I'm not going to bother specifying what he's lying about, because I don't need to do so.  If he is talking, or tweeting, he's lying.  Period.

And all of that serves to exacerbate the hostilities between the Republican Party and academia.  This sucks.

Brief comments on Rand Paul and the Kavanaugh nomination

Oh, no!  Rand Paul isn't sure how he'll vote on Kavanaugh!  The nomination is in such trouble!

Or... not.  Remember the healthcare debates?  Remember what I called "The Drama Club?"  Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Ron Johnson, and... Rand Paul!  Those four Senators kept trying to out-conservative each other by saying, "this bill isn't conservative enough for me!  I can't vote for it because it would make me impure!  I'm so tortured and dramatic!  Look at how angst-y I am!  I'm going to go listen to The Cure!"  Bullshit.  They were just posturing.

Rand Paul is just posturing again.  He'll vote for Kavanaugh.  Go back to high school, Rand.

Here's some bonus Tuesday music, without the bullshit angst.

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

Tev Stevig, "Ramo Ramo," from Jeni Jol.  This is one of the Greek-based tunes from the album.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Trump and Iran: What to watch

The President is tweeting again.  When has such a sentence ever been uttered before, and did you ever think such a line could strike such dread in your heart?  It sounds like a laugh line from an absurdist horror-comedy.  Or, as we know it, "reality."

Trump is tweeting threats to Iran.  Will he invade Iran?  I'm going to bet on no.  The odds are far higher than I would like for a country that isn't invading anyone else and that didn't violate the nuclear deal, but I'm going to bet on no.  For now.  Trump is easily distracted, and he's just venting, because he had a bad week.  However, that may give you an indication of where this is going.  Keep an eye on these things.

1.  Watch the 2018 midterms.  With a Democratic congressional majority, he'd have zero chance of any legislation, and if Democrats take the Senate, he won't even be able to appoint anyone to anything unless he actually consults with Democrats, and... that ain't gonna happen.  The more frustrated Trump gets on the domestic front, the more his attention will turn to international aggression as an outlet.

2.  Watch Mueller.  This is part Wag the Dog, and part frustration, but if Mueller really does get too close to Trump personally, launching a war would seem like a good distraction to him.  How close is Mueller to Trump personally?  We don't know.  Mueller runs a tight ship.  Things are looking ugly between Trump and Cohen, though, and if Cohen flips, that's bad for Donny-boy.  The more frustrated and scared Trump gets, the more he'll want to take that out on someone, and try to distract the country.

3.  Watch the trade war.  In case you missed this, Trump indicated at the end of last week that he is willing to slap tariffs on everything China sells to the US.  Full trade war.  Because Trump is a mercantilist idiot.  Sorry for the repetition there.  The more fallout there is from Trump's trade war, the more Trump may get frustrated, and want a distraction.

4.  Watch the rest of the world.  Trump is getting skewered by everyone around the world.  Nobody takes him seriously because... seriously!  He practically blows up NATO, slobbers in Putin's lap, sucks up to Kim Jong Un, starts a trade war with our allies for nothing...  If he gets the sense that the only way to make world leaders see him as the tough guy he wants to be is to find someone in the prison yard and beat him up, he'll do that, because right now, world leaders don't see him as a tough guy.  They see him as Putin's lap dog.  Invading Iran wouldn't eliminate the Putin part, but at least it would puff up his chest.  Remember, Trump isn't smart.

5.  Watch Iran.  Notice I put this last because this really doesn't have anything to do with them.  If Trump's Iran tweets seemed to come out of nowhere, that's because they did.  This isn't about Iran.  This is about Trump puffing up his chest.  North Korea?  Now that Kim Jong Un is Trump's second-bestest buddy (after Putin, of course), he isn't likely to posture about war with them, so Iran was the likeliest target.  However, Iran's responses could influence how this plays out.  A few days ago, I posted this about Trump's need for dominance games, and how that conflicted with his behavior with Putin.  Trump is now back to calling Russian meddling a "hoax," after having his advisors and the press twist his arm into briefly admitting the truth.  Now, he needs to puff up his chest again and play his stupid, little dominance games.  He actually can invade Iran.  They don't have nukes, so he doesn't have to worry about that.  He doesn't need congressional approval.  War Powers Resolution.  Iran has a fine line to walk, then, of not just kowtowing to King Joffrey, but not giving him enough provocation for an actual war.  So, yes, watch Iran.  Fortunately, Iranian leaders are smarter than Trump.  Everyone is smarter than Trump.

Most of this boils down to the issue of Trump's frustration.  For all of his tough guy posturing, what he wants is for everyone to fall to his feet and praise his toughness so that he doesn't have to do anything.  Wars are work, and they are risky.  The likelihood that he will actually attack Iran is low, and the likelihood that they will attack us is zero.  However, the more Trump's frustration builds about other matters, the more he will look to military conquest as an outlet, hoping for what we call a "rally 'round the flag" effect, in which presidential approval numbers go up in times of national crisis.  Would it happen for Trump?  I'm skeptical.  As Richard Brody has argued, the effect happens when there is "elite consensus," and I doubt that Democratic elites would give Trump cover for an unprovoked invasion of Iran, just to cover his own political ass, in which case the move wouldn't work.  That doesn't mean he wouldn't try it, though.

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

JJ Grey & Mofro, "War," from Country Ghetto.  Somewhere between blues, rock and southern R&B.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Reflecting on the stability of Trump's polling numbers

Following from yesterday's post, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on one of the many oddities of the Trump Presidency.  This one gets less attention because it is a) mathematical in nature, and b) isn't directly about criminal or illicit behavior.

Trump's polling numbers are remarkably stable, all things considered.  I normally link to Gallup here, and as you can see, Trump's approval dipped below the 40% mark for a time, but mostly has been in a steady range, currently just north of that 40% mark at 43%.  It is worth noting that Gallup recently changed their polling methodology to a weekly tracking, so I think I will do a little more comparison with RealClearPolitics, which uses polling averages (I'm a big fan of that).  Cropping of the graph and lack of smoothing makes the changes look more dramatic there, and there are some slightly bigger swings, but the low of 37.3% in December of last year with RealClearPolitics matches a low of 35% with Gallup around then.  This is still range-bound, compared to what you see from the other presidents, which is what you can do with the Gallup interactive.  What you don't see at Gallup is the movement in the disapproval numbers.

With an economy that is booming, a president shouldn't have approval ratings this low, but with scandals of this scale, a president shouldn't have approval ratings this high.  What's going on?  There is no mystery here, and I have been writing, for a long time, that Trump's support is necessarily range-bound.  Trump's partisans will never abandon him.  Many support him because they adore his racism, and the rest are locked in a bizarre relationship in which the other Republican leaders refuse to separate themselves from Trump out of fear of punishment by Republican voters, which solidifies Trump's support, guaranteeing that they can't confront him on anything.  Democrats' opposition is baked in, and Trump is so obviously scum that independents, few though they are, have a hard time backing him.  The result is that Trump's support fluctuates around 40%.  As it has.  Predictably.

And that's less movement than we are used to seeing, because with Trump, everything is already baked in.  There is nothing new to learn.  Well, we can still learn exactly how deep the corruption goes, we can still learn how many women he has sexually assaulted, how many his lawyer has paid to silence, and so forth, but Trump has never pretended to be a decent human being.  I have referenced Terry Pratchett's Going Postal several times before, so here's another character from that one.  Reacher Gilt.  Reacher Gilt goes out of his way to dress like a pirate, and act like a pirate.  He is a business raider who marvels that he does everything possible to show everyone, in the bright light of day, that he is an untrustworthy villain, and people are still stupid enough to trust him.  Reacher Gilt is actually smart, making him distinguishable from Trump, but the connection to Trump here is obvious.  Trump does everything possible to show people that he is scum, including bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault.  He practically stood on stage and told the world that he was Putin's "asset," in intelligence terms, and there is a core of people who still love him, and would probably sacrifice their first born children to him.  He is Reacher Gilt, with brain damage.  Or, rather, a lot of the American people are even dumber than the people of Ankh-Morpork, dumb enough to trust someone as obviously sleazy as Reacher Gilt, but with less intelligence.

And yet, there are enough others that, with an economy booming, Trump still can't get his poll... numbers up.

So, Trump's toast, right?

Not so fast.  Remember that, in 2016, the economy was growing at a healthy pace, polling showed that most voters knew Trump to be unqualified for the presidency, and he won anyway (please don't pull that "popular vote" crap with me).  Trump's approval numbers in the 2016 race were lower than Clinton's.  This was the core weakness in the argument made by the Bernie people, still whining about how the Democrats should have nominated he-who-walks-on-bong-water.  Supposedly, Clinton lost because her negatives were too high.  Problem:  Trump's negatives were higher than Clinton's, and he won anyway.  Translation:  those things aren't as important as you think.

Of course, Trump's numbers matter more now that he actually is the President.  Yeah, this is weird.  Presidential approval matters even when the actual president isn't on the ballot, but candidate approval numbers don't.  Why?  Fuck if I know.  How can light be a particle and a wave?  Why does time slow down when you are near a gravitational source?  How can subatomic particles behave according to probabilistic laws rather than deterministic ones?  To borrow from Neil deGrasse Tyson, "the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you."  Or me.  What matters even more than presidential approval, though?  The economy, and the fact that the GOP won't be facing a two-terms-in-a-row penalty.  So, yes, Trump's approval ratings are oddly stable.  This is very strange, all things considered.  What's going on?  His supporters are blind partisans, who can't be reached by the facts of the scandals.  Democrats would oppose any Republican president anyway, and Trump's basic vileness makes it impossible for him to appeal to anyone who isn't his base.  This has been obvious since the beginning.  It also matters less than the economy.

Reacher Gilt-with-brain damage is President.  Welcome to Ankh-Morpork.  Vetinari?  Little help here?

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

Tim O'Brien & Darrell Scott, "You Don't Have To Move That Mountain," from We're Usually A Lot Better Than This.  Didn't I just use Tim?  Yes, but you can never get enough Tim O'Brien, and this one has Darrell Scott!  Darrell Scott!

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Putin and the upcoming midterm elections

There are two ways you can take the title of this post:  election-meddling, or the potential electoral consequences of Trump's increasingly obvious subservience to Vladimir Putin.  I'll focus on the latter.  I have already made clear that I am skeptical of the electoral consequences of Russian electoral meddling in 2016, and I see no reason to place a higher estimate on their likely efficacy in 2018.  Yes, contrary to Trump's time-space-warping lies, Russia is still at it.  They just aren't going to accomplish much.

I am more interested in the question of whether or not Putin's role as Trump's obvious... let's go with "dom" for today, can be expected to have any electoral effects.  The theme for today, then, is the potential for partisan tides in elections.  Gallup has had Trump's approval rating on a bit of an uptick, currently at 43%, which is still not good, but a bit better.  If you pay too much attention to punditry, though, you would think that the last week was total and utter disaster for Trump, and by extension, the GOP, for how obviously Trump let himself, well, go read Will Hurd's op-ed for the New York Times.

Here's the problem.  Does that general storyline sound familiar?  Have we heard that before?  Have Trump's numbers ever plummeted?  Have we ever really seen GOP defections at the elite level?  OK, Hurd went after Trump, but like the title says, what's he gonna do?

What will Hurd do?  (See what I did there?)  Nothing.  You see, according to that wonderful news source, The Onion, Congress passed a resolution blocking itself from doing anything about Trump.  Ever.  That one might as well be true.  So might this one, leaving the world to wonder, as in this one.  I don't think I could get through the Trump Presidency without The Onion.

This is a ritual that we have seen before.  Trump does something stupid, vile and horrendous that would have been unthinkable for any past president of the modern era.  It is so stupid and vile that even a few members of his own party feel compelled to speak out.  What concrete actions to they take?  None.  Why not?  Because elections are zero-sum events.  I have written about zero-sum interactions rather a lot, and I wrote a series about zero-sum politics about Trump, to my knowledge, long before most pundits caught on to the importance of it to his thinking.  Most things in economics aren't zero-sum.  That's why capitalism works, and why mercantilism is stupid and wrong.  Elections, though, are zero-sum.  In order for Republicans to do anything to Trump, they have to hurt their own party, and that means helping Democrats.  That's why none of them will really do it.

It would risk a partisan tide in November.  None of them are willing to do that.  So, we go through this familiar ritual in which a few "brave" Republicans come out and criticize Trump for something that would have gotten his stupid, vile, treasonous ass run out of town on a rail if either it were just a few years ago, or more importantly, if he were a Democrat.  However, this stuff will be tamped down by November.  The GOP may very well be on its way to elevating Vladimir Putin to the same stature as Margaret Thatcher in its mythology.  Why?  Because to do otherwise would be to risk increasing the size of a partisan tide in 2018.

We have seen this before.  Wasn't Charlottesville supposed to be a turning point?  How many of those have there been?  I've lost count.  Here's an oldie but a goodie.  Remember when Trump lied about saying he taped his conversations with Comey?  Remember how insane that was?  When Trump pulled that act, I posted this.  What I wrote was that pretty soon after the event, you would forget about Trump's insane lie about secretly recording the FBI Director, and you needed to keep in mind how insane it is that a lie so insane could be forgotten because it would be buried under so many more insane lies.

When was the last time you thought about Trump lying about secretly recording the FBI Director?  It's been a while, right?  Why?  Because Trump keeps doing more and more crazy, vile things, and like I told you, it would get buried amid more crazy shit.  That's just how vile Trump is.

How bad was it that Trump sold out the country to Putin, and will continue to do so?  Well, compare that to the fact that he handed national security secrets to the Russians, for nothing, within months of taking office.  And his polling at Gallup has, if anything, ticked slightly up with the economy booming, while the GOP demonstrates that they don't care what he does.  At all.  We've been through this.  There is nothing Trump could ever do to get Republicans to abandon him.  Ever.

What does this mean for the effects of last week's Putin shenanigans?  It means that they won't amount to anything in November.

We have models.  Political science works.  Yes, the actual political science forecasting models, as opposed to the polls, even got the 2016 election right.  Alan Abramowitz's "Time for a Change" model, my favorite, correctly called it for the GOP, even if Alan himself (along with yours truly, admittedly), lost the faith, so to speak.  The economy, presidential approval... these kinds of things matter.  What about a president who subordinates himself to a hostile foreign power?  We have never seen it before, so there is no variable for it in our political science models, but the only way it could operate is through presidential approval.  Trump's approval rating hasn't gone down.  Why not?  Two things-- the economy, and absolute, unwavering support from his own party's leaders (congressional Republicans, Fox News, etc.).  Trump's approval rating cannot go down below the basic floor of support, short of the economy crashing, or something like that.  That means that nothing he does can negatively affect him, or the Republican Party, in terms of the immediate electoral future.

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

Country-adjacent.  Danny Gatton, "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," from Cruisin' Deuces.  My usual comments for Gatton apply.  This guy was among the greatest guitarists ever.

Friday, July 20, 2018

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

Two non-political items for today, in my attempt to get away from certain... things.  Unfortunately, one of them is a memorial.  Theryl DeClouet died a few days ago.  He was best known as the occasional singer for Galactic, a sort of funk/acid-jazz type thing that was quintessentially New Orleans.  On the more pleasant side, as I have noted on many an occasion, I disregard pop and pop awards.  However, a certain award organization has decided to give a lifetime achievement award to the most important New Orleans funk band of all-time, The Meters.  Do I care about that award ceremony, or those people?  No, but word floated across one of the music news sites I actually check, so there's that.  At least that's some money for a band that deserves it.  I'll combine these two stories for tonight, honoring "The Houseman" with him doing a jazzy cover of The Meters' classic, "Hey Pocky A-Way."  To my way of thinking, anything New Orleans gets automatic jazz cred., and the best part about that statement?  Wynton Marsalis wouldn't know whether to love it or hate it!  Here's The Houseman, covering The Meters.

Monetary policy and the Presidency

I'd really like to get away from Trump's Trumpi-ness.  I really would.  There's just no way, though.  The midterms are months off, and Congress isn't doing anything.  This is what I can do.

Anyway, garnering less news as Trump slobbered all over Putin's lap was the incident in which Trump objected to the Federal Reserve Board continuing to raise interest rates.  Normally, presidents stay silent on monetary policy, but here's what Trump said:  He said he's "not thrilled" that they are raising rates, that every time the economy grows, the Fed raises rates to choke off that growth, and, "now, I'm just saying the same thing I would have said as a private citizen."

Spoiler alert: Trump is a shameless, craven liar.  And an idiot.

In 2016, when Trump was running for president, he said that Janet Yellen should be "ashamed of herself" for not raising interest rates more.  Back then, the economy was not doing as well.  It was doing well, just not as well.  Thus, the case for keeping rates low was stronger, but Trump wanted rates to go higher.  He accused Yellen of keeping rates too low to create "false markets," whatever that means.  Remember, the economy was weaker then, so the case against raising rates was stronger.

Why did he want rates to go up?  OK, realistically, he didn't.  Trump didn't know anything about monetary policy.  He doesn't know anything about anything.  It was just something that Republican economists said during the Obama administration, and he was repeating what he heard like a parrot.  OK, that's not fair.  I like parrots, and parrots can be trained.  Conservative economists have been screaming about looming hyperinflation for a decade, which of course, hasn't materialized, and this argument appealed to Republicans for partisan purposes during the Obama administration.  If you were a Republican during the Obama administration, and cared more about partisanship than the economy, you wanted the economy to tank to help your party win the next election.  If Yellen had jacked up interest rates out of the fear of the phantom inflation that never materialized, the economy probably would have crashed, and solidified Republican electoral gains.  That's why some Republicans latched onto the rhetoric, separate from the economists afraid of the inflation-monster hiding under their beds.  I'll get to actual inflation in a moment.

Trump, now that he actually is President, has flipped that.  He thinks that low rates are good because they mean economic growth, so while he was pissed at Yellen for keeping rates too low during a weaker economy, now he's pissed at Powell for keeping them too high in a stronger economy, and claiming that it's the same thing he would have done as a private citizen.  Lying dipshit...

So, reminder:  the Fed is supposed to find a balance between unemployment and inflation, based on the premise that as unemployment goes down, inflation goes up, and as inflation goes down, unemployment goes up.  The relationship is murky.  After all, we currently have low unemployment, but low inflation.  Why?  Is it that a bunch of people never went back into the labor force, leaving it all to the labor force participation rate?  Is the Phillips Curve wrong?  I'm not going to do a thorough literature review here, because this is just a morning blog post, but this is complicated stuff.  Far too complicated for someone who cannot handle a thought more complicated than, "will this please my dear, sweet Vlady?"

What Powell is doing, though, is slowly raising interest rates.  Why?  At some point, we'll have a recession.  Why?  I dunno.  They happen.  External events... stuff...  whatever.  When those happen, our best response is to lower interest rates.  We can't do that if our interest rates are already so low that we can't lower them any more.  We need room to lower them.  When the economy is doing well, raise them so that they can be lowered when things get rough.  However, do it slowly so that you don't cause the recession in the process.  That's what Powell is doing.  Is there a case to be made for not raising rates at all, or even more slowly?  Sure.  Inflation is still very low, and wages aren't rising, so we don't see signs of inflation danger, and the labor market can still improve.  Thus, perhaps the risk of causing the recession is greater than the risk of inflation, but there's nothing odd going on here.

From Trump's perspective, what is interesting is that he sees no danger of inflation.  Inflation was, once upon a time, a presidency-killer.  The idea of the Fed raising rates to prevent inflation while giving it the tools to fight a future recession now scares the crap out of someone like Trump, but if Powell is doing his job properly, and preventing inflation, that helps Trump.  And he doesn't even see it.  One of my preferred forecasting models for presidential elections is the "Bread and Peace" model, developed by Doug Hibbs.  He uses, for his economic variable, RDI.  Real Disposable Income, which is useful because it incorporates inflation.  That would be the "real" part of the title.  Back when inflation was a regular concern, that mattered.  The Fed has gotten a handle on inflation, and we haven't had to live with it for a long time, but that's to the benefit of presidents, who have, in the past, suffered for it at the polls.  Of course, a twit like Trump would never understand this.  He can't understand the economics, the history, or anything like that.  He just flipped on a dime because he thought that low interest rates helped the sitting president.  So, he hated them when Obama was President, and now he wants them as President himself.

Miles's law.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Russia and the future of election-meddling

While Donald Trump continues to defend his lord-and-master, Vladimir Putin, we know that Russia is gearing up for its 2018 interference efforts.  Congress is "working on" legislation related to that, but it's going nowhere.

Remember, though, that Russia's primary efforts were social media campaigns and disinformation efforts.  There is no way to stop that, whatever we tell ourselves.  The basic problems that allow disinformation campaigns to work are human credulity and the fragmented media environment.  Human credulity is an unsolvable problem, and we aren't going back to a 3-network set-up.  The tech companies aren't going to find a magic solution to stop lies from getting into peoples' news feeds.  Keeping the electronic voting systems off-line?  That's a no-brainer, but stopping the disinformation?  You can't prevent it from getting into the internet, and you can't get people to stop being credulous.

Remember, though, that public opinion polls didn't move against Clinton when the DNC hacks were released.  The hacked emails were released just prior to the Democratic Convention, after which Clinton's numbers went up.  To argue that Russia's main meddling efforts hurt Clinton, then, requires arguing that her numbers would have gone up more without the hacks, and that's a difficult argument to make.  Otherwise, those arguing for the efficacy of Russia's interference are arguing that it was the effect of something happening throughout the campaign in a way that we can't measure.  Yet, remember that Clinton ran ahead of Trump throughout the 2016 campaign in the polls.  There was nationwide polling error, which Russia's disinformation campaign should not have had anything to do with, numbers shifted more to the GOP in the Great Lakes region, which should not have had anything to do with Russian meddling, which was nationwide, and Comey was the big factor at the end, not Russia.  For all of Trump's bragging about how easily he, personally, defeated Clinton in mano-a-mano combat with his tiny, tiny manos,* James Comey was his champion on that field of battle.

My point is to remind you that, while we talk about Russia, it is a hard case to make that they really swung the election.  I don't think they did.  Comey?  Yes.  Yes, he did.  The biggest problem with Putin's interference is Trump's propensity to fall prey to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy (unless he is also just being blackmailed...).  Putin interfered with the intent to help Trump, Trump won, therefore Trump has a debt to Putin based on the misperception that Putin caused his victory, or at the very least, Trump has an obligation to Putin because Putin has the potential to help Trump in the future.  Will that future interference matter?  Not likely.  Not on any big scale.

Human credulity?  That matters, but it's also unsolvable.

*As we all know, a presidential election in the United States can best be described as one-on-one combat between the two nominees.  There are no other actors involved.  At all.  Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in one-on-one combat, and that's all there is to it!

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Trump's submissiveness to Putin and his core personality

Let's have some fun today with Donald Trump's basic personality traits.  One of his more prominent traits is his need to seek positions of dominance in all social relationships.  Everything, for Trump, is a dominance game.  Understanding Trump is much like watching a wildlife video, where animals conduct displays, and sometimes fight, in order to see who submits.  Trump praises "strength" above all else, and his most scornful insult is to call someone "weak."  Why?  For Trump, everything is a dominance game.  The worst thing you can do is adopt a position of submissiveness.  The most important thing is to take the dominant position.  This is Trump's motivating principle in everything.

And yet, he is clearly the submissive one in his relationship with Putin.  He is toadying, sycophantic, eager to please, unwilling to criticize, and just generally in a lesser position, socially speaking.  Militarily and economically, the US is in a stronger position than Russia, but Trump adopts a position of submissiveness when dealing with Putin, despite it going against what seems to be his basic motivating drive.  What is going on here?

There are, broadly speaking, two possibilities.  Either Trump is unaware that he has been dominated, or he is aware.  Let's go through them.

Case 1:  Trump thinks he's at least on an even footing with Putin

This may seem insane, but remember, Trump is insane.  He also watches a ludicrous amount of Fox News and surrounds himself with his own sycophants who only tell him what he wants to hear.  So, he may really be hearing, "yes, sir, Mr. Trump sir!  You've got Putin where you want him now, Mr. Trump, sir!"  Trump, idiot that he is, might listen to the sycophants around him, watch too much Fox, and think that he is the one in control.  Insane?  Delusional?  Idiotic?  Yes.  All of these things.  Remember, though, that Trump does not have a functioning brain in his head, and he lives in an informational bubble.

I am reminded here of a wonderful scene in the early part of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Shadow.  You probably know Ender's Game, from the movie if nothing else.  At the risk of being that guy (I'm that guy anyway), the book was better.  What was even better was Ender's Shadow, which tells the same story from the perspective of Bean, who was a far more interesting character than Ender.  Bean was smarter than Ender, and more pragmatically cold-blooded.  Part of that was his pre-battle school experience as a homeless kid in Rotterdam.  They survived in gangs.  Bean's gang needed a bully to protect them.  They found one-- Achilles.  The problem with Achilles was that he was smart.  Too smart.  He started acting in generous ways towards certain members of the gang, but it was to establish dominance patterns.  Not everyone got what Achilles was doing, but the end result was establishing his own patterns of relationships over and above those that existed prior.  The only one smart enough to see what was going on was Bean.  You have to be smart to see this happening.  In order to understand the more complex games of social dominance, you have to be smart.

Let's not mince words.  Vladimir Putin is far smarter than Donald Trump.  It isn't close.  Trump may think that they are two "bros" on even footing, but that may be because Trump isn't smart enough to understand social dynamics.  A little back-slapping, some flattery, and Trump may simply be blind to his own instinctive lickspittling.  In order to see what Achilles is doing, you have to have a brain.  Maybe not one as scary-smart as Bean's, but one smarter than Trump's.

This really is plausible.

Case 2:  Trump knows he's being submissive

This is where things get scarier.  While Case 1 is plausible, Trump's submissive behavior is so blatant that it is difficult to ignore, and what is almost impossible to ignore is that most of the world, and half of the US, look at Trump and think that he is being submissive to Putin.  I can't find a way to embed this from youtube, so I'll just describe it.  The late, great Phil Hartman starred in one of the all-time classic fake ads on Saturday Night Live many years ago.  It was for a luxury car that didn't look like a luxury car.  It looked like a piece of crap on the outside, so no one would steal it, but it had all the good stuff on the inside.  On the other hand, what about a great paint job on a piece of crap?  Which would President Comb-Over choose?  He'd go for looks over actual luxury.  Why?  He cares a lot about the appearance of being on top.  So to speak.  It isn't the dominance itself, so much as everyone seeing him as being dominant.

Would Donald Trump be OK with a situation in which he, personally, knows that he and Putin are on even terms, or he has an edge on Putin, but the world thinks otherwise?  Or, would Trump rather have the world think that he [Trump] is the dominant one while Putin secretly has the edge?  Knowing what we know about Trump, the answer is clearly the latter.  Truth doesn't matter to Donald Trump.  In any context.  He is the lying-est liar who ever told a lie.  Perception is the only thing that matters to Trump.  The fact that he is seen by so many people as submissive to Putin should, itself, drive him nuts.  More nuts.

He would have to do something to show or establish dominance, then, right?

Unless... unless...

Unless Putin really does have something on him.

Here's the problem, then.  Trump's basic need to establish dominance, or at least appear dominant, should cause him to perform some animalistic dominance display.  He has never done so with Putin.  He did so with Kim Jong Un, and he has done so with damn near everyone else.  Not with Putin.  Why is he so submissive?  Either he is unaware of his own submissiveness, or Putin has him, but even if it is the former, he should be aware that others see him as submissive, and that should cause him to perform some dominance display.  The most plausible explanation for why he hasn't is that Putin really does have something on him.

Or maybe Trump really is so instinctive and stupid that he just doesn't get it.  It's amazing how often these things degenerate into "how stupid is Donald Trump?"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Bonus jazz for a Tuesday

For you, Donny.  John Scofield's cover of the Ray Charles classic, "What'd I Say."  That was the title cut from an entire album of Ray Charles covers, in Scofield's style!

Trump, Putin and the nature of power

Yesterday was surreal, but precisely what anyone with a clear sense of the last two years would have expected.  Trump was obsequious and submissive, which he... never is, except when dealing with Vladimir Putin.  Whether that is because he hero-worships Putin, or because Putin really does have blackmail material on him, we may never know for certain, as uncomfortable as that may be.  I'll restate here my continued assessment, which has not changed for quite some time.  Putin does have blackmail material of some kind on Trump (which clearly isn't that difficult to acquire, as has been demonstrated by the Stormy Daniels case), but hasn't needed to use it because Trump is so easy to manipulate by exploiting his natural fascination with totalitarian dictators, combined with his need for praise.  Don't pull the trigger on that blackmail until you have to because once you do, you turn the friend into an enemy.

Regardless of how Putin manages to get Trump to behave so submissively, he does, and this brings me to the subject of power.  Nominally, I study this.  I am a professor of political science.  Screw the capitalizations because, whatever.  To the degree that politics can be constrained in intellectual terms, it would be the study of power.  Who has it, how do they get it, how do they exercise it, etc.?  Harold Laswell simply defined politics as:  who gets what, when and how?  That's more concise, and distributional, but fundamentally, politics are about power.

So, what's power?  We now play the definitional game of infinite regress.  The ability to control or influence outcomes, right?  So, how much influence does Vladimir Putin have over American politics, and what does that say about "power?"  We are now into some fuzzy questions about politics that aren't my normal territory, but the fuzziness of the question is directly associated with the ambiguity of the relationship between Trump and Putin.

In normal times, we would say that the President of the United States is clearly the most "powerful" person in the world.  His control over military resources, capacity to make appointments and so forth, give him more direct power to influence outcomes than any other single person on the planet.  Normally.  Throughout history, the relative power of Congress and the Presidency have gone back and forth (see, for example, James Sundquist, although I can't believe I find myself referencing him), although as a single person, the institutional powers of the Presidency give the holder of that office powers, particularly now (go away, Sundquist!), that are going to be difficult to rival.  Who, though, can influence a president?  Advisors, in normal times.  We find ourselves, though, facing at least the possibility of "kompromat," or perhaps just a President whose hero-worship of an autocratic dictator leaves his judgment so blinkered that he cannot make sound decisions (not that he could otherwise anyway).

What, then, could Putin do?  That's the question, isn't it?  I have already stated my assessment that NATO is no longer a truly functioning treaty organization because Trump would never back NATO over Putin.  That gives Putin the capacity to act against NATO, but will he?  That's a separate question, and if he doesn't act against NATO, does that... power (?) mean anything?  What else can Putin do?  We have already seen Trump hand national security secrets over to Russia, getting nothing in return, and I would put a high likelihood on more of that, which is a hell of a lot of power.  In many ways, though, Trump is constrained, by Congress, by the rest of the world...  Putin can't tell Trump to bomb the shit out of Chechnya to make that problem go away for him.  He can't tell Trump to hand over a $100 billion for nothin'.  Russia is not a wealthy country.  It has nukes, but we aren't the only ones with nukes to check their nuclear capacity.  It has a large army, but empire-building in an economically interconnected world has its own risks and problems, which leaves the basic question of what Putin could do, and what he could get from Trump.

This is a difficult question.  Putin has power over Trump.  Even if all you knew was what you saw yesterday, combined with Trump's penchant for playing social dominance games, you would know that Putin has the upper hand on Trump.  What actual power does that give him?  Thinking this through, I'm not sure.  We have already seen Trump hand over national security secrets.  In the open.  What else?  I don't know, but there's that.  Such is the ambiguous nature of power.

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

I know, I have used this before (recently), but it's just too perfect.  When Trump meets with his KGB handler in a Scandinavian country, I just have to play "Sovjet," by Swedish bassist, Jonas Hellborg, from e.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Donald Trump, foreign policy and Team America: World Police (more NSFW than my typical posts)

OK, so... warning.  I have what I sometimes call a "Carlin-mouth."  My posts are often "not-safe-for-work."  This post will address Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police.  It will involve Carlin-speak.  Perhaps more than my usual posts.  Fair warning.

The plot of Team America: World Police is that a government agency recruits an actor (Gary) to be a secret agent/action hero/whatever to stop Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un's father) from doing evil.  That's really all you need to know.  It was an excuse to have marionette puppets say and do crude things because it was Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  Early in the movie, Gary meets a drunk at a bar, who gives him a speech.  This speech:

The world can be divided into "dicks," "pussies," and "assholes."  The key to the movie is a scene in which Gary takes this speech and uses it to convince the UN to let Team America do its thing.

So, there it is.  Only we can stop Kim Jong Il, despite our recklessness and arrogance.  And... dickishness.

Is Donald Trump a "dick" or an "asshole?"  How does one distinguish?  This is not actually an issue that Team America addresses, but it is important.  Gary's basic tripartite model distinguishes between "dicks" and "assholes" as follows:  "assholes shit all over everything," but "dicks," while arrogant and reckless, "fuck assholes."  So, there will eventually be something good done by the "dick"-- stopping an "asshole."

Donald Trump practically blew up a NATO meeting, and just called the EU our "foes."  In contrast, he cozies up to Putin, and Kim Jong Un, the son of the very "asshole" from Team America itself.  Which "assholes," specifically, does Trump confront?  He launched a few missiles at Assad, but that was it.  He is levying tariffs on allies like Canada, Europe...  This could be classified as "dick" behavior rather than "asshole" behavior, but to get the former classification, he would have to "fuck" an "asshole."  He acts like Putin, and now Kim Jong Un, are his best buddies.

Donald Trump, by the Team America model, is just an "asshole."

I warned you-- NSFW.

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

Long Tall Deb, "What Kind of Man."  The studio version is on Diamonds on the Desert Floor.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The latest Mueller indictments and the legal definition of "coordination" (yet another c-word...)

One of the more fascinating details in Mueller's latest round of indictments was that when Trump told the Russians to look for Clinton's deleted emails, within hours, they made a hacking attempt to do just that.  Is that "collusion?"  Well, as everyone but Trump knows, there is no legal definition of "collusion," and the Trump people are simply willfully obtuse on that point.  You know what does have a legal definition in campaign finance terms?  "Coordination."

Here goes...

Coordination is what happens when an ostensibly independent group makes expenditure decisions, or ad content decisions in direct consultation with the candidate that it is trying to help.  That's sort of a lay-person definition.  So, superPACs aren't allowed to coordinate with candidates.  They can run ads that are clearly on a candidate's behalf, but they can't have the head of the superPAC sit down with the candidate, map out where the ads will run, when, how the ads will look, scripts, etc.  That would be coordination.  Legal problems ensue.  Here's the thing, though.  Nobody ever gets caught for coordination in the campaign finance system.  Why not?  It's too easy to accomplish the same goal without actually crossing the legal threshold.  Basically, superPACs and other independent groups all play a game of "I'm not touching you!" with the FEC.

The kind of example I always give when I teach this stuff is the basic signaling process that occurs any time a candidate talks.  Hey everyone!  Pay attention to X about my opponent!  Did you hear about that scandal?!  If a superPAC then runs ads about X, is that coordination?  Not legally.  So, where's the line?


Somewhere between that and the working dinner where the candidate and the chair of the superPAC map out the ad campaign in full together.  And that leaves plenty of room for smart people to send signals that are clear enough for the superPAC chairs to understand, but vague enough to avoid any legal problems because the laws are written in such a way that you have to be really stupid to go far enough to get convicted.

Any time I use the word, "stupid," do you free-associate the name, "Trump?"  Good.  Well done.

How stupid is Trump?  That sounds like the set-up for an old comedy routine, until you remember that he can launch nuclear weapons.  HAHA!  ha... uhh...

Trump is very stupid, but he is also full of bluster and bullshit.  Could his entreaty to the Russians be taken as bluster and bullshit, given his propensity for those things?  As Trump?  Yup.  That cannot be ruled out entirely, and between that and the high bar for showing coordination in campaigns, how much should you read into this?  Not much.

Not much, but not nothin'.  Here's the what-if.  What if the Russians had found the deleted emails, and what if they had something other than just details on Chelsea's wedding, and other such irrelevancies?  What if they handed those emails to Trump, or to WikiLeaks, via Trump's good buddy, Roger Stone?  Trump would have been pretty happy about that.  And he's already pretty enamored of Putin.  It would have been one more way for the Russians to give him something.

Anyway, keep this in mind when thinking about the latest indictments.  "Coordination" in campaigns is kind of a joke because the legal threshold for demonstrating it is so high.  Of course, I essentially advocate no limits on donations, with full disclosure of all sources.  If you think there is influence, you know exactly what you are getting.  Trump basically had a Russian flag on him while campaigning for office, so we shouldn't be surprised that one of his first acts as President was handing national security secrets to the Russians just because he could.  No, I don't forget these things, and neither should you.