Friday, December 30, 2016

Heaven or Hell - You Decide

Suppose you woke up one day and you were given a choice of two options - a jaunt through Heaven led by tour guide Monte or a walk through Hell with Maurice. Would you say - quick, tell me more about Monte and Maurice so I can make an informed choice. Will Monte wear purple shorts? Will Maurice speak with an Australian accent. No, of course not. You are familiar with the concepts of Heaven and Hell and choose based on your understanding of those two. The tour guide is pretty much incidental.
Yet, in our presidential election, the mainstream media ignored the stark difference between the policy choices-diametrically opposite across the board-between Trump and Clinton. No matter who you prefer, no matter why - this is crazy. If you just voted for someone whose policy is contrary to your interests, if you are already beginning to regret your vote, then this is a time for some soul searching.

Memories of Killenworth

The Obama administration action to shut down Killenworth, the Russian country manor in Glen Cove, N.Y. brings back memories of the Cold War. According to news stories about local reaction, some residents had no idea the Russians even owned the facility, but in the late 1950's and 1960's, it was the talk of the town. The Soviet delegation to the UN was known to unwind there. We would drive past from time to time and peer at the compound hoping to catch a glimpse of the enemy. The Pratts had owned this house and the Pratt name was well known in the area for multiple estates and their contributions to charity. So there was something eerie about the takeover of one of those estates by the Russians, even if it was a simple purchase. Read more.

New Year's Resolutions

Time for New Year's Resolutions for this blog in 2017:

-More special features, like fun facts or pointers to other blogs of interest, with commentary.
-More progress toward a unified theory that encompasses how different people think and why they do  and why political discussion goes where it goes - drawing on theorists like George Lakoff and Kahneman/Tversky.
-More personal anecdotes, many of which will illustrate and substantiate the arguments being made here. Some will just be personal stories.
-More posts and pages that draw from my actuarial or retirement consulting experience, but with applications to policy choices.
-Progress toward development of a detailed model for journalistic reporting in context.
-Progress toward a clear tie-in of statistical thinking with all of the above.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What's Wrong With Fake News

Interesting that we have a new term this year - fake news - that became an important factor in the presidential election campaign, though we heard a lot more about fake news and the actual sources generating fake news post-election than we were hearing pre-election. Now it can be told. The true story of the election and the candidates. Were the mainstream news outlets holding back on their DT reporting for fear of appearing biased because he had no chance of winning? So holding back was supposed to be best of all possible worlds - being as fair as possible to candidate DT who was going to lose anyway. Except he didn't.
Josh Marshall has a good take on fake news with the unfortunate insulting title "Why You're Fooling Yourself About 'Fake News". Consumption of fake news is a choice people make, like Diet Pepsi. Consumers know they are choosing fake news, information that may be demonstrably false, but choose not to select news sources based on veracity.  The problem with letting that situation just exist in society is that matters only become much worse. For example, if fake news exists side-by-side with real news, that is, accurate information, then fake news can drive out the real news. Fake news helps sow confusion, which benefits alt-government, i.e. autocracy, kleptocracy or any form of diminished democracy. So the problem is not just the impact on the consumers of fake news, but on the real news that gets lost in the confusion.
Back to Marshall's text:
"But again, I think we realize that this isn't really how people's mind's work. People's political beliefs don't stem from the factual information they've acquired. Far more the facts people choose to believe are the product of their political beliefs. In fact, I think it even goes beyond this. I think there's a legitimate question about how much many people actually 'believe' what we call 'fake news'. In many cases, 'fake news', the latest manufactured outrage, functions as a kind of ideational pornography, ideas and claims that excite people's political feelings, desires and fears and create feelings of connection with kindred political spirits."I agree with the last part (to some extent) , but not the first. Not "Far more the facts people choose to believe are the product of their political beliefs". Not necessarily and more importantly, much of the misunderstanding between people who disagree in their political beliefs is attributed to bias. But bias does not explain beliefs. Political leaning does not explain perception of the world. Rather, perception of the world may help explain poltical belief. People who do not understand how other people think because the way they think differs sometimes attribute their lack of understanding to the bias of the others. We can understand the world in which we live better if we keep trying to understand the political arguments of others assuming they are not biased. At the moment we attribute their understanding of the world solely to bias, we have given up on understanding.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Fun Facts

We will be sharing more fun facts and fun stuff in the coming year on a separate page, but first a sneak preview.
Retraction Watch reports on academic papers that need to retracted for a variety of reasons, many of which could be called "bad science". Retraction Watch maintains a leader board, similar to a professional golf tournament. Since this is a down time for golf fanatics, at least those who stay home for the holidays, you may want to check out the leader board. Spoiler alert: Yoshitaka Fujii is ahead by a wide margin with 183 retractions. While there, you don't want to miss the top 10 most highly cited retracted papers.

Advice from a Comedy Writer

TV comedy writer Ken Levine shares his best advice for trimming your scripts - Kill your babies. Not as bad as it sounds. He continues:
"What it means of course is that you have to cut stuff you love. In comedy scripts that usually means laughs. Why? Because story is most important. If you take out story steps the audience might no longer be able to follow the narrative. Jokes are the tinsel and ornaments we hang on the tree."
So it's a one-two punch. Story first. Next comes the comedy. Not exactly intuitive.
Political campaigns are like that, at least in some ways. A successful campaign needs to tell a great story about the candidate that appeals to people. If not, at the very least, the candidate needs to control his or her narrative and not let the narrative slip into the hands of the forces of the opposition.

Electoral College Sham

Massachusetts maintains a governmental balance of sorts with a consistently Democratic legislature and, more often than not, a Republican governor who is moderate by today's national Republican party standards.
The current version of this phenomenon is Republican governor Charlie Baker, who, like many Republicans trying to maintain support at home with two eyes on a national stage, has been doing something of a dance around the issue of the Trump phenomenon- not voting for either Trump or Clinton.
But he has extended the tortured logic this week in his expressed support for the electoral college:
"If we really played this game on a popular vote only, literally half the states in the United States would be disenfranchised, and no one would campaign there, and no one would care. I think that would be a huge problem."
Baker's claim, an echo of other Republicans is a classic case of drawing a conclusion based on partisan advantage, but reaching for a plausibly sounding principle.
This fails in a few ways. First, only people have a right to vote and can be disenfranchised, not states. In fact, Republican voters in Baker's home state of Massachusetts have felt disenfranchised for decades by the electoral college, which he, as a Republican voter in other election years, conveniently ignores. So that argument makes no sense.
Second, Baker conflates being disenfranchised- losing the ability to vote or to have a vote count- with having a campaign pay attention to voters by visiting the state, which is two different things. And, of course, the presidential candidates ignore Baker's home state of Massachusetts in the general election as they often flock to neighboring New Hampshire, so -ahem- he must be more concerned about other states than he is about Massachusetts.
No, Baker is more likely excited about the prospect of America being ready for a sane candidate as early as the next cycle, someone who even Democrats perceive to be a reasonable person with appropriate background and temperament, and yes, someone who has a chance to win under the existing structure of the electoral college.

Monday, December 19, 2016

War on Democracy

I ran a search on "War on Democracy" expecting to encounter many hits on articles about our current situation in America. After all, this blog has described something of a "War on Democracy" all year, but without calling it that. But no, there were few hits other than the 2007 book about the U.S. waging a "war on democracy" in other countries.
Is there any doubt we have been witnessing a war on democracy? If you wanted to destroy democracy in America, would you go about it by stating your mission? No, you would make other claims time after time after time. And other players with the same mission would join you in the effort, but all of these bad actors (pun intended) would claim untrue reasons for their actions.
So the public record would be riddled with false justifications. The false justification is a red flag that tells us that the broad strategy of deny, deflect, distract, accuse is being applied in order to sow confusion about reality. Remember, we are only in a post-truth universe if we do not call out the tactic of false justification.
-Ignore the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. War on democracy. But call it the "Biden rule."
-Ignore the president's annual budget proposal in Congress for the first time in living memory. Therefore, no one will discuss that and the Republicans do not have to compare and contrast their proposals with the president's. No problem with this one. No need to concoct a false justification. People will hardly notice.
-While running for president, behave in all ways like an ally of the Russian autocrat, but deny you are working together for the same goal. Does it matter? Does a conspiracy require working together secretly if you are both public figures working together in plain sight?
-As president-elect, deny that Russia was behind the Wikileaks emails or that they were calculated to help you win the election, despite the clear advantage to Russia for that outcome.

The FBI intervention in the election in multiple ways is a clear example, making them appear to be more the secret police of the new regime than an independent agency.

The North Carolina coup this past week to strip the newly elected Democratic governor of the ordinary powers of the office is the latest and most dramatic example of the success of this war on democracy in a state with severe gerrymandering in place and election laws designed to impede voting by democrats.

Real News

We are hearing a lot now about fake news from multiple sources. But many of our most reliable news stories now come from nontraditional sources. Comedy Central does not see themselves as a straight news source, but their adherence to real life as a source of comedy makes them just that.

At the NYT, a cautious organization that can not speak the truth to lies for fear of appearing biased, the opinion page cohort is mostly a stale group who have all been there for too many years (Dowd, Brooks, Douthat, Kristoff, Bruni, Friedman) saying too little of value.

But Krugman is in a different category. Hired for writing about economics, he writes plainly in most articles about politics instead, most recently today in How Republics End. When Frank Rich was at the Times, he wrote for years about politics, more perceptibly than most of the NYT stable, though he was hired as an Arts and Entertainment guy. So it is, for some reason, that the so-called writers on politics often can not see the forest for the trees. The gap the political writers leave is filled by others.
Springing up to take their place is, you guessed it, BuzzFeed and, more recently, Teen Vogue.

Huh? Teen Vogue? Really? Yes, it has come to this. And not just their GasLighting story.
The current issue of Teen Vogue (and, yes, it is difficult to even write that...) has a great article entitled Russian Hacking Poses a Threat to American Security and the Presidency which gets right to the point and is not tldr.

The Teen Vogue article centers the story in the actual context - what is really happening, not the he/said she said Trumpworld of denial. Unlike the prestigious New York Times, Teen Vogue refuses to tie one hand behind their back. They just report the truth. And so Teen Vogue, who you would think worry too much about appearances, does not, at least in this situation, while the New York Times, whose editorial policy claims they only worry about reporting "without fear or favor", does worry too much about appearances. That approach to journalism leaves us with a worrisome reality. Today.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Threat to Democracy?

Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt ask "Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?"
Their answer is "Yes" and, in an otherwise on-the-money piece,  they conclude,

American democracy is not in imminent danger of collapse. If ordinary circumstances prevail, our institutions will most likely muddle through a Trump presidency. It is less clear, however, how democracy would fare in a crisis. In the event of a war, a major terrorist attack or large-scale riots or protests — all of which are entirely possible — a president with authoritarian tendencies and institutions that have come unmoored could pose a serious threat to American democracy. We must be vigilant. The warning signs are real.

If you follow the train of thought in the piece, the conclusion reads as a nonsequitur, possibly the result of a watchful editor wanting to tone down the piece. Why? Well, that is what they do. Water down the conclusion because the reality is too alarming. Alarming, but not alarmist. This tone-it-down approach was used consistently throughout the primary and general election season as DT trampled the opposition with his no-holds-barred attacks on reality that were never met head on in the weak-kneed media.

The logical consequence of the arguments set forth in the editorial would have been this:

American democracy is not in imminent danger of collapse. If oOrdinary circumstances no longer prevail. We can not just assume our institutions will most likely muddle through a Trump presidency. It is less clear, however, how democracy would fare struggle in a crisis. In the event of a war, a major terrorist attack or large-scale riots or protests — all of which are likely entirely possible — a president with authoritarian tendencies and institutions that have come unmoored cwould pose a serious threat to American democracy. We must be vigilant and be ready to act decisively as a people when the crisis comes. The warning signs are real.

Or, for easier reading:
American democracy is in collapse. Ordinary circumstances no longer prevail. We can not just assume our institutions will muddle through a Trump presidency. It is clear democracy would struggle in a crisis. In the event of a war, a major terrorist attack or large-scale riots or protests -- all of which are likely---a president with authoritarian tendencies and institutions that have come unmoored would pose a serious threat to American democracy. We must be vigilant and be ready to act decisively as a people when the crisis comes.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

All Tactics All The Time

In a well written and thoughtful piece in the NYT, Masha Gessen points out that the "disagreement" between CIA/FBI and Trump/Putin on whether Russia intervened in the American election on behalf of DT "can feel deceptively substantive" and "when journalists are busy proving the obvious, they ignore the important questions. Arguing abut facts is, in fact, the ultimate distraction." No kidding!

The piece proceeds to describe what a meaningful discussion would look like, which is fine on the surface. But the key point here is the pattern of denial that Trump, Pence and their minions use as a tactic to stymie the functioning of democracy. They bring meaningful discuss to a hard stop by denying truths or making up stories that are outright lies. For them, Deny, distract, deflect, accuse is always on the menu. Denying obvious facts, which Trump has been doing for months,  is a tactic difficult to combat effectively. He says something, anything to distract from the issue at hand, makes a statement that deflects to a different issue entirely-though a rough connection in the mind can be made- and finally turns the entire discussion into an accusation against an opponent. To Trump, any observer who is truly objective, by the way, is considered a dangerous opponent. Unfortunately, the NYT has been slow to catch on to this reality.

Now It Can Be Told

"Now It Can Be Told" is the title of a song and several books, but for some of us Now It Can Be Told was always the title of the science fiction novel written by Kurt Vonnegut's fictional character Kilgore Trout about the origins of the universe. The catchy name can be taken to mean either that we previously knew the story and could not bring ourselves to speak it or we did not have enough details to put together the true story. The latter explanation could mean - we did not have the details because we did not try hard enough, did not care, or simply had other priorities.

Whichever the explanation - and I believe the regular media (NYT and others could not bring themselves to come forward due to an antiquated model for objective journalism), today "Now It Can be Told" is the story of the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the failure of the media to tell the true, correct, and complete story.
So now we have "How a Putin Fan Overseas Pushed Pro-Trump Propaganda to Americans" and the FBI joining the CIA to finally admit they know that Putin was behind the stolen emails and carefully timed distribution to the "objective" media to cause maximum damage to Democrats Hillary Clinton and Congressional candidates.
"Now It Can Be Told" can also refer to the story finally emerging in the objective press of the stark difference between the America with D. Trump as president and the America with Hillary Clinton as president. Only after the election of November 8th, after the "horse race" is over do we finally find serious discussion in the press of the vast difference in the life of the country that we now must fully expect in the coming kleptocracy.
The twisted logic is that if the press accurately reported the coming horrors while the campaign was in full swing, they could have been accused of bias and needed to avoid accusations of bias at all costs, while other unscrupulous actors like that Putin fan could infiltrate the information bubble with his propaganda. Only now, when it is too late to do any good, now it can be told.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

BiPolar Disorder

The model for our politics has morphed over recent decades into a full-scale war footing, though leaders among Democrats and the mainstream media have been slow to recognize the evolution. For the leaders, pre-election we say President Obama saying, to paraphrase, "We are all on the same team.", but Republican leaders do not see it that way and have not for a long, long  time. Republican leaders have regarded their political opponents not only as political enemies, but just plain enemies for many years.

Our democratic institutions have been reeling from the propensity of Republican leaders to stretch them to their limits without regard to the survival of those institutions and no apparent concern with the precipitous declines great powers have seen throughout history. Only recently did we hear the common refrain"Are We Greece?", which was ridiculous, when the better question was "Are We Rome?".

As we have been saying, T rump is nothing new, but is a more extreme case of Republican electoral strategy carried to its logical limit. The damage to the electoral process rendered by his success this year is almost beyond comprehension. If he had lost, the message may have differed. Instead, his success reinforces the clear message that a political leader how tries to be clear, direct and forthcoming makes a serious mistake. The formula for success is to be evasive and destructive, demeaning and crass, unknowledgeable and vague.

For the Senate majority leader, the calculus is clear. Having taken over the management of Supreme Court appointments, he now has his wife at cabinet meetings. The division of the spoils will allow McConnell to divide real political power with Paul Ryan, while they appease T rump by permitting him to amass as great a fortune as he desires without interference. This devil's bargain will continue until and unless Trump takes some action that they find unacceptable, which is unlikely. As president, he is likely to enrich himself in ways that could prompt Congressional action towards impeachment. But this run-up in his wealth will be the bargaining chip Ryan and McConnell need to keep in him line. They get the legislation they want and T rump gets the personal fortune he wants.

Before 2000, the Electoral College was long viewed as an odd institution that works just fine because... it doesn't do anything!  The outcome generally agrees with the popular vote totals. Defined as functioning well by not functioning at all is a dangerous proposition. With all of the other institutions of democracy in the U.S. at risk or failing , the electoral outcome in 2016 is one more blow at democracy, leaving the government in the hands of an uncompromising ruling minority.

The Republican model for governance shows through in North Carolina today as a microcosm of the U.S. The Democratic candidate for governor won a close election over the incumbent who has called a special lame duck session of the Republican legislature to pass laws designed to limit the powers of the newly elected governor. The pretext for the special session - the pretense- was to pass legislation for hurricane relief. So again, the ends justify the means. Lying about the reason for the special session is just another expediency which can be denied. The legislators who resort to these tactics are putting short term political gain ahead of the survival of democratic institutions that are in jeopardy of failing if citizens lose faith in democracy as a result.

And so the battle lines are drawn across political institutions at the federal and state level with Democratic officeholders set to employ tactics that Republicans have made their standard operating procedure to grasp and maintain power.

This is all very sad as it dawns on Democrats that Republicans have been fighting an all-out war for years with Dems mostly saying "we need to work together". Though we often hear that the electorate is polarized now as never before, that overstates the case. The actual polarization is at the political level in the willingness to employ scorched earth tactics which the Republican strategists long ago understood would give them the power to craft policy, even as a minority than they would have if they were willing to compromise. By adopting this approach, they made substantive campaigns a distant memory, plowing a path for a Trump candidacy. They made Democrats the enemy rather than their political opponents. Put those two outcomes together and no wonder we have Putin, the kleptocrat, an enemy of America and progressive democracies worldwide, becomes a close ally of the president-elect. Doesn't this mean that our president-elect, who assails our democratic institutions, has set himself up to be our enemy?

Monday, December 12, 2016

What's All This About Gaslighting?

In a series of articles here and here and elsewhere,  observers have been calling the Trump/Pence strategy "gaslighting" after the old Boyer/Bergman film "Gaslight".
source: wikipedia
But it's not gaslighting if you know the perpetrators are constantly lying as a strategy using false positive claims on their own behalf, while using a strategy of deny, deflect, distract, accuse when called out on the lies. That sends the fact checkers digging into reality, which the reporters dutifully report to little attention, while the perpetrator has already moved on to the next lie. Our elite media did not quite see this coming, labeling DT "not a normal candidate" much of this year and, falling into the false equivalence trap, the campaign between two presidential candidates was labeled "not normal".
So the normal candidate lost in the Electoral College which is the system we have.
Even as the accusations and counter accusations fly over the role of the FBI and Russia, some of the simple evidence is quickly forgotten, lost in the miasma.

Back to "gaslighting". We are talking about a populace divided between two types of nonbelievers - those who care about the lies and see this behavior of national leaders like DT and McConnell as destructive of national institutions of democracy and those who just do not care about the lying.

The willingness of conservative leaders to be mendacious in order to win elections and achieve policy goals without fear of retribution, without concern about the devastating impact on the political system is not unprecedented with DT, but the scale is unprecedented. DT beat them at their own game in the primaries and he had valuable assistance from the FBI and Russian agents to plow over the top. Had DT lost the election, he would not have been the leader of the Party. The Party leaders would have continued with the stonewalling of the Obama years, combined with a ratcheted-up opposition to Clinton - endless investigations culminating in impeachment hearings calculated to weaken her Presidency mercilessly ( "merciless" to us, the American people they say they care so much about.). The thinking on the best Republican strategy would have been, OK, Trump was a little over the top, we need to pull the strings of the primary system to make sure the non-establishment candidate does not win next time. Instead, Republican strategists have decided, OK, so this is what we need to do to win - not only elections, but in the court of public opinion as we govern. So lying about everything is the best tactic we have. Anyone who accuses us of lying is being "political", so we can swat down any accusation by labeling it biased. We can do whatever we want without fear of repercussions that we care about.

So it's not "gaslighting". The big mystery that requires a better explanation is - why do the supporters, the Republican base, just not care about the truth? About reality?  Why do they not see that mendacity in leaders can destroy a political system, what was once the best political system in the world? Why do they not care about that? Well, for the same reason that they care more about the American flag - a symbol - than they care about America - a country, their country. More on that in a future post.

Meanwhile, easily forgotten in the focus on the Comey role as head of the FBI to interfere in the election on behalf of Trump is the other FBI push made in the final week of the campaign - the posting of documents about the Clinton presidential pardon of fugitive Marc Rich. These actions, together with Republican suggestions that they would limit the Supreme Court to eight justices, or fewer if Justices started to die off with Clinton as president, along with advertising the planned investigations of a president Clinton - all made emphatically during the final weeks of the campaign - were designed to let the American people know - "If you elect Clinton as your president, we will make your life hell!" That warning to American citizens was the shot across the bow which succeeded. If you are a business person who leans Republican, why would you vote against a party that is inclined to enact policies that favor you - lower income taxes on the wealthy, eliminating estate taxes on the wealthy, lower Social Security taxes on the wealthy, lower Medicare taxes on the wealthy, lower corporate income taxes making your stocks more valuable, and so on? Why would you go against all that only to have Republicans in Congress not only continue the scorched earth tactics of the Obama years, but intensify those efforts.

So it's not gaslighting. We all know what is happening. We just have trouble believing the extent of the cynicism about the political system. And the shortsightedness. Do they not see?
These destructive tactics have destructive ends.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Man Who Would Be King

Republican strategists have discovered that T Rump is everything they always wanted after all. As a narcissist, he cares only about himself and, by extension, his immediate family. In the evolving symbiotic relationship, he will let them have anything they want on policy, provided he receives the utmost respect and reverence to which he feels entitled. That means they need to leave his business relationships alone and, ideally, let him expand his business influence around the globe, making billions. In return for fostering the trumpian self-aggrandizement,  the Repubs get the foreign policy they want - really any policy they want. Even a traditional Republican president would have policy preferences, but not this one. Together, the new president and Republican dominated Congress need only make the optics work - to fool the base of support among white working class rural voters into thinking that somehow their goals mesh with the capitalist class of business owners.

Worker and Owner interest align in certain limited cases, especially domestic industries that are fixed in place and do not require cheap immigrant labor for competitiveness. Think coal mining and oil. If the price of oil continues to rise, fracking once again could become profitable in the U.S.

The story becomes more complicated and troublesome in the auto industry. Calls to slap tariffs on imports promise a simplistic solution, but ignore the reality of multi-sourcing of auto parts. We can expect a dramatic move away from hybrids and alternative energy in favor of SUV production.

Regulation of industry will be scaled back dramatically, which lowers cost, thus feeding profits in the short term. The negative effects on workers and consumers is only felt over time and can be easily denied in an atmosphere of "our facts vs. your facts".

But how does the tactical stance of deny, deflect, distract, accuse translate from the campaign to the administration of policy. Quite easily. By winning through intimidation. The two most recent examples - the attack on Boeing and the attack on the union leader show us the way. Remember, this is a man in business for himself with a long history of attacking organizations he worked with and stiffing them at every opportunity. He will not change his stripes, but will adapt them to his new powers.The Boeing tweet singles out the constituency of corporations, serving as a warning to anyone who dares criticize from corporate America. The Indianapolis union leader is singled out in a tweet and receives anonymous threats, which is creepily similar to the threats to the pizza shop owner who supported Democrats in the election, as made clear by the wikileaks stolen emails. So three type of organizations are to be brought in line by a variety of threats, either in business or at a personal level - corporations that dare speak up, unions that dare speak up, and individuals, as business owners or otherwise, who dare participate in a democracy on the "other side".

And Trump has attacked the free press consistently and often viciously including personal attacks on individual reporters at his rallies. He has combined personal attacks on reporters with accusations of bias as a tactic to deflect attention from substantive coverage of his behavior and potential policies.

The common theme is the chilling effect on the regular functioning of a democracy which requires that political leaders act in good faith. And none of these examples is as chilling as the Putinesque threats to opposing political leaders - to "lock her up" with the active participation of the FBI to sabotage the election - our own secret police now, as never before.

Of course, all of this intimidation is the way a minority government attains and maintains power when democratic institutions are considered secondary to wielding power and dictating policy.

So who is left to be intimidated, after corporations, unions, a free press, and ordinary citizens in the normal course of their lives, and opposing political leaders? Well, that would leave ordinary citizens in the course of voicing their concerns in a normal functioning democracy, such as by protest marches or other venues. We will see how the crackdown is applied on January 20th. None of this is good.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Running on Empty

The mainstream media used up a lot of gas covering the presidential race for the last 18 months. One hopes that they can maintain that energy and now use it for good instead of on behalf of evil, however well-intentioned that may have been. Will the mainstream media be able to see the forest for the trees or will the big picture continue to elude them?
Early signs are not encouraging.

Chris Cillizza in WaPo today writes This is the single most dangerous thing Donald Trump said in his New York Times interview according to Maggie Haberman "The law's totally on my side, the president can't have a conflict of interest."
Cillizza goes on to explain the specific exemptions in the law for the President, Vice President, a Member of Congress, or a Federal Judge including the Politifact article explaining:
"It’s been this way since at least 1974, when the Justice Department issued a letter saying Title 18 Section 208 did not apply to the president. Congress expressly codified the exemptions in 1989.

In the 1974 letter, the Justice Department said the legislative history of this conflict-of-interest provision indicated that it was never intended to apply to the president. Additionally, the Justice Department said placing conflict-of-interest laws on the president could constrain him in a potentially unconstitutional manner, though it did not give specific examples."

Although the Justice Department letter "did not give specific examples" the history since 1974 is clear. The independent prosecutor (counsel) law was established as a reaction to Watergate because the only check on the President is the impeachment power of Congress, which Congress feared would not be enough. The independent prosecutor law was allowed to lapse after the Clinton impeachment. That leaves only the impeachment threat as a realistic threat to Trump. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that the President could be sued by a private individual in an unusual decision in that the ability of a president to function while in office could be severely constrained by lawsuits. This precedent could be the reason that Trump settled the lawsuit against "Trump University" for $25 million. His foundation tax filing, presumably due and filed by October 15, 2016 and after the Washington Post report of self-dealing. The admission on the tax filing reduces or removes the possibility of tax fraud charges. Surely federal prosecutors have been vigorously investigating Trump and his businesses due to the urgency his electoral victory prompts. A sitting president can not be indicted. A president-elect, maybe not so clear without judicial review.

But I digress. Trump, by his blustering nature, always does whatever he wants on behalf of himself, as if to say to advisors, "Here's what I am going to do, unless you tell me I can't, and then I am probably going to do it anyway. Find a way to solve the problem you have with it."

That reality makes Cillizza's statement that Trump made a dangerous statement to the NYT silly. Of course he did. Of course his election poses a great danger.

The only check on Trump is that the Republican House can impeach  and the Republican Senate can convict. Trump is at greater risk of impeachment and conviction than any President since Nixon because Republicans in the Senate can count on Democrats to join them in the conviction vote that requires a 2/3rds majority. Trump is devoted to extraordinary self-promotion and self aggrandizement. Nothing else matters. The Trumpian Way is the perfect complement to Republican strategy. Their message to Trump is - "give us everything we want in terms of policy and we will give you everything you want to promote yourself and your businesses -- and we will not impeach you and remove you -- the total humiliation that you fear most." This tactic of Republican legislators will dictate policy for at least the next two years and likely four years if they maintain their majority in 2018.  And so it goes.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Falling Short

In a rapid post-mortem of comments by scores of academics and scholars US Election Analysis 2016: Media, Voters, and the Campaign, Prof. Brian McNair writes an excellent analysis of the problems with traditional standards of objectivity as defined by the 'quality' media.  But in the last paragraph, he lets the media off too lightly:
'This tendency is not the fault of the mainstream media, nor of their journalists, who are simply applying the professional codes and practices with which they have been raised. For those in the media who wish to stem a slide into democratically-legitimised fascism in the next four years – and of course, similar processes are now unfolding in Europe, Australia and elsewhere – it is time to rethink the appropriate response of ‘objective’ journalism to the post-factual politics of extreme subjectivity.'

Actually, the time to rethink the appropriate response of objective journalism passed a long time ago - hence the disastrous result. In fact, the stubborn resistance to update those outmoded professional codes and practices at organizations like the New York Times is much to blame.

The standard applied by the NYT was developed for a different environment and still functioned fairly well up through the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, another author in the same post-mortem, Matt Carlson, in The question of objectivity in the 2016 Presidential Election invokes the example of the NYT with Adoph S. Ochs' original declaration "that the paper would report 'impartially, without fear or favor', which we noted is obsolete in Objective Journalistic Standards. But Carlson falls into the same trap with other analysts, in this case invoking Hallin's sphere model, which appears to be yet another labored attempt to properly define objective journalism, but falling short. Carlson invokes the HuffPo footnote warning response to Trump as well, but this again misses the point. With the Fox News launch in the 1990s and takeoff in the early 2000s, the universe changed. No longer could objectivity be defined as "fair and balanced" wherever the story may lead. Fox's unbalanced approach creates an unbalanced world and needed itself to be balanced, but not by advocacy. Instead, the model for objective journalistic balance needed to be redefined away from "he said/she said" toward the scientific objectivity approach. He said/she said needs to be seen as a red flag of failure. Fact-checking in abundance also needs to be seen as a red flag of failure. Objective journalism means behaving like a scientist who explores exactly what is going on, not based on the data/accusations supplied by combatants, but the data needed for full and fair reporting in context. This key point is explained at length here and here. Just filter on the Media label to the right below for more.

Sadly, one of the great tragedies of failure to report in context is the fact that only now, starting immediately after the election, the consequences of the election in policy terms comes to light. The fact that a sweep of POTUS and both House and Senate would lead quickly to an effort by Republicans to eliminate Medicare was fairly obvious. Would the objective press have been somehow biased to point this out beforehand? Would it have been bad journalism if every article about emails was instead about the fate of Medicare? In a word, no. Because that is the proper context that the 'quality" press if afraid to report.

Yet another analyst, long time scholar of journalism in a digital age, Jay Rosen in Journalism and the illusion of innocence had yet another perspective, making a strong case that the cause of the journalistic failures is due to reporters making an extraordinary effort to demonstrate their innocence by bending over backwards never to appear to be taking sides, even at the expense of responsible reporting. Sort of a journalist defense that " we can not be held responsible because we are irresponsible." The frequent accusations that otherwise objective journalists care only about making money (a.k.a. surviving financially) , are otherwise corrupt, or are just obtuse never seem persuasive. So Rosen's argument is compelling. Rosen quotes from Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor's 1990 book:
“Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses – partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”
Rosen is highlighting the quest for innocence, but another salient point pokes out here. Truth is never found by averaging of two extreme points, even though that has become the standard model for "objective" television news programming when opposing pundits are paired for five minute shouting matches. On PBS, the difference is that they don't shout, but we still have the problem of "Truth = Halfway Point."
Rosen goes on to quote from NYT editor Dean Baquet who startled many observers early this year by agonizing in public over how an objective press can manage to tell the truth, relating the challenge the NYT thought they faced in the swiftboating of the Kerry candidacy. As we have stated, the Times stubbornly held to their "principles" and refused to call a lie a "lie" until it was so blatant. But the problem did not start with Trump or the swiftboaters. It shifted into high gear with Fox News and the NYT only response was more of the same.
The NYT could have reworked their journalistic approach if they had the wisdom and would have become a refuge for readers who care most about accurate news in context. Such readers do exist and the Times may have already lost many of them by their inaction. Many of us.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Don

On his blog, Mark Cuban shares his takeaways from the election following his open support of Hillary Clinton. He criticizes the MSM, but his perception of the MSM failings differs some from those expressed on this blog.
One of his "guesses: is intriguing:
"My guess is that all the meetings with non-supporters are` “kiss the ring and kiss my ass meetings” and not true job interviews. Yes, there will be an exception or two. Or at least ones that look like they are a hiring of someone who didn’t support President Elect Trump’s campaign. But the reality of the situation is that it’s not about hiring those folks.  They give the President Elect and his organization the chance to say “see, I was open minded. I talked to everyone. Whether I agreed with them or not. But even when  you try to  take the establishment out of the Swamp, you can’t take the swamp out of the establishment."
Romney's visit to discuss the secretary of state position comes to mind.  The NeverTrump movement pulled out all the stops with Romney's passionate speech denouncing the leading Republican candidate this summer. Does anyone doubt that this "come to meet with the Don" is designed to humiliate Romney when he is passed over for the job, as revenge for that speech? But there is an additional ulterior motive. Dissing Romney puts him in the offended category. If Romney later criticizes DT for his actions as president, or for conflicts of interest with his businesses, DT will say that Romney is just a disgruntled office seeker who is being vindictive.
There it is again - the tactic that just keeps giving. Accuse your opponents of doing the thing that you are doing. In this case, acting out of vindictiveness. (Tactic #11)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Apologies Now

Once upon a time, there was the apology.
Person A hurt Person B, inadvertently. Maybe A stepped on B's toe in a crowed hallway and said, "Sorry" or "Excuse me".
The genuine apology originated with Person A upon learning of the harm caused by A's own mistake or other inadvertent act. Sometimes Person A would consult with A's associate Person C about the details of the event and Person C would say - "You really should apologize for that" or "No, it's okay. You already said enough." Person C is a friend of Person A, not Person B.
Finally, a real apology is sincere. Sincerity is demonstrated by the motivation for the apology coming from Person A or A's friend. Not Person B or B's friend. And not a demand. There is no such thing as a sincere apology resulting from a demand. As we all know, a sincere apology never starts with "If anyone was hurt by my remarks..."

We have this all backwards now.
Apology demands have become a weapon of choice to weaken a political opponent or to distract from an opponent's message.

The recent Broadway production of Hamilton with Pence in attendance ended with a cast member reading a rather gentle and positive statement to the VP-elect as he was leaving the seats.
DT tweeted "Apologize" and more.

He is forgetting he won the election. Or maybe he does not know any better.

1. Nothing harmful was said. The cast communicated positively with a leader in this democracy with a message of hope and unity which is optimistic given the vitriol of the campaigns that has continued with violence post Nov. 8th.
2. The president-elect is about to become the most powerful person in the world. Why is he trying to weaken ordinary citizens? Is it just to continue to stir up his base? Still? He could focus on bringing the country together. Instead he focuses on tactics that keep people apart.
3. A sincere apology can not be extracted by an associate of the person who is hurt (when there is actual hurt).

And so we are increasingly becoming a post-apology world because the apology-demand is now a weapon, an instrument to weaken a political opponent or to shore up a political base.
First a post-fact world. Then a post-apology world. I am not feeling as hopeful about that post-racial world as, well, that cast of Hamilton.

Civil War Too

Imagine life in 1930. In America, reeling from the impact of the 1929 stock market crash, a citizen would look backward to get some bearings. Stopping to think of major historical conflicts, you had "The Great War" of 1914-1918 and the "Civil War" of 1861-1865. Such names. War is not great. It's horrible. But it was "great" in the sense of "incredibly massive". One nickname was "The War to End All Wars". Makes sense. Following such massive casualties, all of humanity lost in a big way. Especially the tens of millions who died, a statistic beyond comprehension. Surely the world would not be so foolish again. Surely the world would find a way to avoid even the possibility of large scale war.

The "Civil War" in America was anything but civil. "Civil" usually refers to the opposite of warlike, but the name has stuck so far. The names of wars change for different reasons. So "The Great War" gave way to another great war. Somehow "Another Great War" or "New Great War" are not a great names, so we have "World War I" and "World War II".

The "Civil War", despite its staying power, may not last. Usually, when angry people win elections, the anger subsides, but we are seeing anger increase in some segments of the population with not so random violence -- attacks on people who "look different" or are "different" in some way. In response, I suggest we come together as a people now and name the next war before it begins in earnest.  No, not "Civil War II" or "Civil War Too". Let's go with the "Incivil War". That term captures the incivility of a segment of the population whose candidate won, but still feels so angry because, well, just because.

Friday, November 18, 2016

First Impressions Matter

Today we saw what the next four years will look like with the news on the Ford plant in Kentucky. So often the devil is in the details, but the truth could not be plainer. Ford Motor Company never planned to move either plants out of Kentucky or any jobs out of their Kentucky plants to Mexico. William Ford made that clear over the many months that candidate DT claimed otherwise. Ford, like any company, can and does shift around how many vehicles of a certain type are produced at a particular plant. Production of the Ford Escape will be substituted for projection of Lincolns that will be moved to Mexico.

But first impressions matter and today's tweets from DT to the true believers will make them think that even before assuming the high powers of office, DT is already improving their lot by saving jobs. The mainstream media spoke with different voices on this today as they grapple with the problem that reporting will now require intensive, constant fact checking. Imagine if your job involved people making up lies more often than they tell the truth and you need to work hard to separate truth from falsehood. In business, anyone like that would be fired sooner rather than later. In our political environment, that person sometimes gets hired.

My own first impression of the Ford news was a misleading Yahoo! Finance headline that had me doubting my own understanding of the realities of the Kentucky facilities over these many months. Then I stopped my thoughts in their tracks...wait a second...I know what is going on here!

We can expect DT to take credit over and over when the news is good, make up good news when there isn't any, and shirk and shift responsibility over and over when the news is bad because that is how he operates. Some people get a lot of second chances at first impressions, judging by the reception they keep getting.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

When Tactics Become Policy

This blog was launched in mid-February, coincidentally upon the death of Antonin Scalia and the McConnell announcement that hearings on a successor appointed by President Obama would never be held. About this Blog explained my observation that Republicans had for years operated under a Playing to Win strategy, employing campaign tactics and governing tactics geared primarily toward winning elections, blocking legislation advanced by political opponents, and, when in power, pushing forward their own legislation, preferring a no-compromise stance.

Subsequent posts anticipated a continuation of scorched earth tactics by Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail until those tactics reached a point where the tactics themselves would overwhelm the basic functioning of the U.S. government, threatening the integrity of this federal republic and turning a federal form into a de facto confederation of States, where the greatest power lies with the States and the rights of citizens are determined by the States in which they reside instead of the federal level.

Throughout the campaign of 2016, the most likely outcome based on the prognosticators was a Hillary Clinton presidency, a Republican-controlled House, and a nearly 50-50 split Senate, possibly under Democratic control due to a tie-breaking vote by the Vice President. That structure would have been similar to the balance of power, or tilted Democratic, compared to the recent few years.

Predictions on this blog focused less on the forecast results of the statistical analysts, than on the continued degradation of the institutions. Democratic control of any branch of government was anticipated to bring continued upping the ante of harsh political tactics by Republicans. The Trump campaign took the extreme tactics of Republican campaigns much further than ever before.

Under this baseline - the Clinton win scenario, the greatest concern was a severe dislocation such as an assassination of a leader. At the very least, we were already hearing in the final weeks of the election campaign from a conservative theorist and Senators McCain and Cruz that confirmation of a Supreme Court Justice was not necessary to a proper functioning of government. In fact, a smaller high Court was suddenly a good thing. Such is the stark level of cynicism of these tacticians. They forget or do not care that abusing the powers of government to weaken the institutions chips away at the legitimacy of government. At some point, citizens will not be fooled by these cynical tactics. All governments derive their power by the consent of the governed, but in a democratic republic, the good faith of the leaders is necessary for continued legitimacy. When the policies being implemented result from a combination of extremely dangerous campaign tactics, a mainstream political press on bended knee, and a cynical willingness to exploit any and all shortcomings in the checks and balances of our system, those policies can not be considered legitimate.

So our thinking was that November 9th would possibly bring more of the same, but with a Republican party firmly established at the state and local level throughout most of the country, but riven by intra-party feuding at the federal level, in the House and Senate. Although the right-wing militias would be restive, there was hope the republic would survive.

Instead the Republican trifecta of President, House, and Senate with an upcoming Supreme Court nomination, rendered illegitimate by the gamesmanship, gives the Republicans plenty of power to share among themselves in the Congress.

And so it has happened. Republican tactics in campaigns and the workings of government have spread to the FBI who participated in the election with Director Comey's actions -- and then again tipping the scales to the now Republican president-elect.

Cynical tactics have led to a government that many consider illegitimate  - in part due to the mainstream press not doing their job - compounded by not understanding the press failed at their role. The jubilant winners of the election now prepare to consolidate their power for maximum impact. This is what they do best. We can expect protests against the new government to continue and flare up. Harsh crackdowns on protesters after January 20th will be no surprise. Our new government will look like a banana republic because that is the favored model of the new regime. And any hope for a functioning democracy is hanging by a thread.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Veterans Day 2016

Veterans Day brings many thoughts to mind, especially this year, but often in unusual ways. If I see an article in the business section about the importance of folks in their early 20's negotiating pay increases that they deserve - lest they miss out and be underpaid for a working lifetime, I think about the 5 years of annual pay increases my father must have missed in 1940-1945 fighting in the European theatre. No, not really. His unit, the 110th Antiaircraft Gun Battalion landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day+1 June 7, 1944 and after that battle participated in the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, the bridge at Remagen, and witnessed the death camps. Their experience is memorialized in a book. There is much more to the story, told and retold many times in the following decades, but those soldiers were usually reluctant storytellers.

The story has changed. The small beginnings of marches this week bring back memories of April 24, 1971, the march on Washington to protest the war - 200,000 strong.

Life was different then. Long distance phone calls were expensive, so communication by overland mail was common. A classmate from high school had written by letter that she and a group of friends were heading to DC for the march against the war. Everybody who was against the war was going. Chip, a friend from home, headed down to join me to hitchhike from central NJ to DC. By luck, we were picked up on Route 1 within 20 minutes and driven to a spot just outside the city. They pointed to a spot where we could pick up a bus and head down to the mall. We headed to the spot on the mall where my classmate had drawn a big X in her letter. It seemed unlikely but in full view of the Lincoln Memorial by the reflecting pool we found her and her friends - no smartphone, no texting. Within minutes the crowd began the march in the direction of the capital. Though completely peaceful, the movement of wave after wave of people was not completely manageable. At one point I was close to a crush of people who were being pushed by opposing waves of marchers toward a lone car parked by a tree off the roadway. One person ended up on the car and others followed. Suddenly the car had several people on it and the roof began collapsing. No one was hurt, but I was surprised the car collapsed so easily. Roof reinforcement came later.

We were quickly separated from the group in the massive crowds, but we kept running into people we knew. Classmates in college who I recognized from campus walkways and classes, but did not know. Other high school friends and acquaintances. Unknown to me at the time, John Kerry had testified before Congress that week against the continuation of the war.

We often hear that our society is more polarized than ever, but that is not exactly right. We were polarized in our worldviews back then, but government still functioned because polarization existed within each party, not between the parties.

The prosecution of the Vietnam War exerted an enormous strain on the system in the late sixties and early seventies. The rift in society was sometimes simplistically expressed as a split between those over age 30 and the young people - "Don't trust anyone over 30" was the refrain, only half in jest. The idea that young people today - the millennials -- will carry the torch for a new generation sounds plausible, but we face an uncertain future and a few very turbulent years in front of us.  Many of those "under 30", back then, especially those attending college, talked about "the revolution" without knowing what that meant or how it was going to happen. But the idea was that, despite setbacks, the rights of and respect for women and minorities would continue to expand. One of the people we ran into at the march, I recognized from gym class. The next year he founded the first gay rights group at the college. So in many ways, the battle for the rights and dignity of peoples never ends.

The war had been prosecuted by a combination of volunteers and drafted soldiers, but an  all-volunteer force was on the way. Coincidentally or not, April 1971 marked the start of Project VOLAR (Volunteer Army) at select army bases.

In today's world, its hard to imagine the many pathways that existed to face the issue of the war. Many young men volunteered to fight for their country, but for others the purpose of the war was unclear and was considered crucial. By the time of the Tet Offensive of 1968 the determination of the enemy of our troops was clear, but the strategic relevance of "winning" to the U.S. was not. Other young men found ways to resist the draft the way some people resist taxes today, but situations and approaches differed.

At the height of the killing my oldest brother completed his undergraduate college studies, placing him in 1A status immediately, prime for the draft. Technically he had health issues that probably qualified his exemption, but he was essentially young and fit and did not want to play that game. He was drafted, but was lucky enough after basic training to be sent to the large American contingent in Germany (West Germany).

In the mid-1960s, one strategy to avoid the draft indefinitely involved continuing directly from undergraduate to graduate studies and then marrying immediately. As the war waged and many soldiers died, the popularity of this technique surged. The key requirement was to maintain continuity of exempt status. Any lapse, however brief, could mean being drafted. This loophole of sorts was tightened at some point.  Making the sacrifice of pursuing graduate study, whether or not truly interested, and getting married, whether or not truly interested, was a sacrifice many were willing, like Dick Cheney, to make.

The U.S. Army National Guard route was popular as well. In the 2000s, joining the National Guard has often meant being sent to a dangerous war zone, despite gender, marital status, and, for women, having young children. In the 1960s war, the opposite was true. The National Guard was a popular escape route for those who were otherwise certain to be drafted. National Guard service meant never having to go to Vietnam to get killed. The only sacrifice was the requirement to show up from time to time. It was well known at the time that those who were well connected could jump the line to get into the National Guard. Later we learned that those who were well connected did not even have to show up.

My other older brother, younger than the first by 4 years, was swept into the birthday draft lottery which existed only for a few years. His number was 9 out of 365, which meant he was sure to be drafted as soon as he graduated college. By that time, he solicited and received a note from his ophthalmologist that his "conical cornea" should exempt him from the draft. I still don't know what that was -his vision never seemed impaired, but he did need glasses, It worked. He escaped the draft.

I was younger by another 4 years. The draft lottery continued. I was number 143, in the gray zone of the middle third. Lowest third - definitely drafted. Middle third - maybe, maybe not. Highest third - not drafted. By the time of college graduation in 1974 when the student deferment lapsed, the draft had ended. One classmate was my age though a year behind in college. That made him draft eligible. He was drafted and pulled out of college for a two year stint, and also headed to Germany.

So, on Veterans Day, which is intended most to recognize those who served, while Memorial Day was intended for those who served and died, I think about those who served and am grateful. But I also think about the different challenges in different eras and the ways we find ourselves sometimes on the same side, or different sides, as battles rage - hot wars and cold wars, and the constant threat we live with that cold wars may become hot.

Bring the Boys home was the demand in 1971. The primary argument against that was that U.S. troops had to stay there to protect the U.S. troops that were already there, which made no sense. Even then, arguments that were nonsense were used as a method to put a clean stop to meaningful discussion, so the current problem is nothing new.

In America the time may come again for similar marches on Washington as the battles continue. In 1971 we marched because we had no other way to send a clear message to the Congress and the President that the war they were waging lacked a clear objective and needed to end.

Hanging by a Thread

Hanging by a thread. A sliver of hope for functioning democracy. Only the filibuster now permits some small sense of representation in Congress for half the voters. In Hard Choice for Mitch McConnell: End the Filibuster or Preserve Tradition, Carl Hulse walks through the options, saying that McConnell "is what is known on Capitol Hill as an institutionalist, a strong believer in the traditions and practices in the Senate", going on to say Mr. McConnell loves the Senate rules and would be loath to change them." So even a veteran reporter like Hulse falls into the storytelling. It's a great story. McConnell as the protector of cherished tradition. Except that it is not true.

McConnell is, of course, the person who upped the ante this year in the dangerous game of tit-for-tat by cancelling any possibility of hearings for the Obama Supreme Court nominee.  That action creates the possibility of delegitimizing the high Court. For some of us, the outcome of the election coupled with the move by McConnell did that.

We are caught in a repeated game of prisoners dilemma*, but with a bias in payoffs that favors Republican policy objectives. Republicans in Congress decided long ago that obstruction of all proposed legislation worked to their advantage. McConnell decided after the 2008 election that opposing all legislation favored by Obama would politically work to the advantage of the Republican Party in subsequent elections. In 2010, this strategy was shown to be successful. With the 2012 reelection of Obama, the strategy continued. The danger was that the machinery of federal government would limp along during the full two terms of the Obama presidency. But that was OK too, bringing more Americans into the fold of skepticism of government.

Hulse and most pundits like a good story. A great story is personal. The reader likes to focus on a character, not a process. But the real story is about the process, the parliamentary maneuvers along the lines of a repeated game of tit-for-tat in game theory with grim triggers.

McConnell has shown that he knows how game theory works. The move on filibusters needs to be viewed together with the House Republican strategy of increasing threats to shut down the federal government and default on government debt. The Republicans' brinkmanship banks on the theory that Democrats care more about saving the country than they do.

Democrats want to save that dog more than Republicans do. Both sides know that. Republicans are willing to sacrifice the federal government in favor of small government, but do have a place in their hearts for the military, which must be funded.  Still, the repeated game favors Republicans who show themselves willing to pull the "grim trigger". Republicans like to win and are willing to take chances. Democrats like to cooperate. But prisoners dilemma is a noncooperative game. In a repeated game of prisoners dilemma, both sides may compromise for the long term good of the country, but when one side defects and continues to defect, putting party over country, the ultimate result may be disastrous for the country and, at that time,  both sides lose big.

McConnell's "hard choice" is not the one described in the article. He sees the choice only in game theory terms. His next move is either to (1) eliminate the filibuster (with enough support in his caucus) with some combination of parliamentary maneuvers at the beginning of the next Congress and blame the Democrats for their anticipated refusal to compromise, or (2) keep the filibuster for two years to see how that works out with the possibility of eliminating it when the Congress reconvenes in 2019, still with a Republican president. McConnell's decision will not be based on his "love" for traditions of the Senate. He will decide whether eliminating the filibuster and ramming through massive legislation over the next two years plays to the advantage of Republicans over the long run.

The "best response" in game depends on one's utility function. Paradoxically, if Democrats obstruct like the Republicans have, which they can only do if the filibuster survives, they will be labeled as being just as bad as the Republicans have been and therefore "both sides do it". But if Democrats relent and do not filibuster because it is the "right thing" to do for the country, that will mean that the Republican strategy to thwart the functioning of the institutions of democracy in the post-2008 era was completely successful.

So the McConnell move to obstruct all Obama legislation in 2008 was the "grim trigger" in a repeated game of prisoner's dilemma. The move to hold no hearings on the Supreme Court nominee this year upped the ante - he gave himself a free move when Democrats lacked the power in the Senate to stop him. That move had a positive payoff no matter what happened next. Citizens who believe in democracy were not going to cast their vote in the Senate, House, or for President based on that move by McConnell. His framing the issue cynically - "let the people decide the next Justice when they vote for President" - deliberately obfuscates the reality of the underlying process.

If Democrats had won the Senate, worst case would be the approval of Garland as Supreme Court Justice in the lame duck (maybe) had Clinton won, or use of the filibuster to thwart nominees in the next Congress - now worse than the outcome of hearings in the Senate anyway.  But if a Republican won the White House, he would nominate the Justice, which becomes a win. Nothing to lose for the Republicans. Everything to lose for the country, at least if you value the institutions of goverment, a point that Carl Hulse does not quite understand. His piece appears in the straight news section, not the Opinion pages, despite the questionable statements - the opinions- about McConnell's alleged love of the institution of the Senate he is prepared to unravel. Now that the election is over, we can expect the so-called straight journalists to continue to played, but not like the campaign season. The Republicans control the functioning of the government. Straight news stories will center on the Republicans as the government. The narrative will start there. Democrats will have a chance to provide the counter-narrative. "Fair and balanced" will still mean that Republicans tell the story - they go first -- and therefore control the direction of the narrative. Democrats get to go second, like playing black in a chess match. Democrats will get to rebut claims by Republicans, but will not get the story told. Just like the campaign all this year.

The greatest danger of the game may be that the Democratic side caves in and voters eventually perceive - correctly- voting for a Democrat as president results in a stymied Congress, -- so what if that is due to a policy of obstruction by Republicans -- but voting for a Republican president unlocks the Congress for accomplishments - appointment of Supreme Court justices and other judges approved by the Senate, laws passed, less vitriol due to the greater amenability of Democrats, fewer investigations of the President just because. That has been the direction of democracy and the little remains to halt the downward slide - but the filibuster if it lasts.

*The game is similar to prisoners dilemma- the result is suboptimal for the country, but a more precise illustration will follow.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Wheels of Democracy

The United States is one country, but two songs can define us:
The Star Spangled Banner vs. America the Beautiful.
The Star Spangled Banner has a martial theme-"bombs bursting in air"- and celebrates a symbol of the country, the flag while intoning the values of freedom and bravery.
America the Beautiful celebrates the stunning beauty of the country and the bounty,  "the purple mountains majesties above the fruited plains". "And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea" ends with the only reference even remotely political - "brotherhood" invoking family and loyal cooperation of men in a single word.
The most commonly sung verse in each song is emblematic of two different worldviews, how we think of our country.

Some people cherish symbols. Those who cherish symbols lean toward intuitive ways of thought. Decisions are simple. You just do what needs to be done. The leaders tell you what to do -or you are the leader- and everyone gets in line. Boom! That's the Star Spangled Banner world. No wonder the playing of the national anthem is usually accompanied by a military honor guard. The military is celebrated as an important symbol of the strength and endurance of a great and powerful nation. And the flag itself is protected and honored by a long tradition, rules that are enshrined in law.

Some people cherish ideals. Those who cherish ideals lean toward abstract thinking. It's all about the ideas, the logical train of thought leads to conclusions about the best course of action. The conclusions can and will be replaced in the future upon further analysis using additional information and insight with different conclusions. Results of actions matter. Observe results, try to understand mechanisms, and then adjust policy. The military is the bulwark of the democratic republic, with military officials reporting to the civilian leadership.

We all need to combine intuitive thinking and abstract thinking together to survive. We all do that, but we can not do both in the same instant. More importantly, each person tends toward one end of the spectrum or the other. So we have concrete thinkers and analytical thinkers in large numbers.

The Star Spangled Banner works best for the concrete thinkers. Do as I say (not as I do).
America The Beautiful works best for the abstract thinkers. Let's try this one thing and if it does not work, we will learn from that and then try something different that we think may work better.

For abstract thinkers, the idea is the thing. The more ideas the better to choose from. Hearing other peoples ideas and arguments helps to combine the ideas into more and better conclusions. Getting things done requires tradeoffs between the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action. Compromise with people who disagree comes naturally. If you are already considering a range of ideas and courses of action, you are prepared to hear arguments for alternatives.

For concrete thinkers, the action is the thing. Just do it and shut up. Sounds harsh, but sometimes harshness is necessary to ensure you do the right thing, the only thing, without worrying too much about it. But who decides? The leader decides. You need a good leader. Someone who is intuitive. A concrete thinker. So it is like the military.

We are all, first and foremost, the way that we think. The way we make sense of the world which combines abstract and concrete thought.. You are what you think. Next comes whether you are "conservative" or "liberal", but these concepts, these labels have more to do with the risks we are willing to take. "Conservatism" places emphasis on preserving what already exists over what could be. "Liberalism" places emphasis on openness to new ideas. Conservatism is a belief in simple solutions. Problems are simple and solutions are simple. Liberalism is a belief in complex solutions in a complex world.

Conservatives also place a higher value on winning, on average, than liberals, who place a higher value on cooperation and building consensus, on average. DT is symbolic of this difference. This desire to win at the expense of the underlying institutions of our democratic republic has been the subject of much of this blog throughout this year.

The different ways of thinking, concrete vs. abstract, lend themselves to different ways messages can be crafted and are therefore received by an audience, depending upon how information is processed.

Some of this description is metaphorical, along the lines of the work of George Lakoff,  but it gets at an important point. When we are told people make electoral choices based on the economy, we need to be skeptical because the way people make sense of the world is the most fundamental component of the choices they make.

Conservatives, especially the most conservative, are more susceptible to the tools of propaganda. This is not stupidity. Conservatives have an intuitive heuristic. You hear something that makes sense, that supports your worldview and boom! Yep, that makes sense. No need to think any more about it. "She's crooked". Yep. "Build a wall." Yep. Finally, someone who understands the world is simple. Simple solutions to simple problems.

People who are analytical have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for DT under any circumstances. The man seemed to have many disqualifiers based on his own statements. How could this be?

We did not become a polarized country. We were always polarized. Any pundit who says "We have become so polarized" is mistaken. Anyone who remembers the feeling in the 1960's, which has continued to flare up from time to time in the "culture wars" knows this. What changed is the composition of the teams- the political parties. Any political party will be a coalition, but following the realignment of the parties post-Nixon era the concrete thinkers have moved in large numbers to the Republican party.

How did DT win the Republican party nomination? He won by demonstrating leadership. He controlled the debates throughout the primaries. He knew nothing about policy, but no matter. By bringing the debates down to a complete know-nothing level that he could dominate, his ignorance did not matter. When Jeb Bush said, "Donald, you can not bully your way to the presidency", it sounded lame, like, maybe he can, because if Jeb's claim was true, wouldn't Jeb have been saying whatever else at that precise moment that would have demonstrated you can’t bully your way?

DT was able to win the general election (with help from the electoral college system) due to the same powers of persuasion that won the primaries. But he won most of all due to the complete abdication of responsibility by the pundit class. Mainstream news organizations reported his statements and, thinking that these statements self-evidently disqualified him as a candidate, applied their balanced journalism model to help destroy Hillary Clinton's candidacy. What was clearly a contest between (1) a narcissistic, unqualified man who had spent his hedonistic existence seeking money, fame, and power without regard to others and (2) an exceptionally talented, unusually intelligent and experienced woman who spent her life trying to do good for others, turned into a media exercise to balance off the public image of the two candidates. By the time we reached the final weeks of the campaign, most all the damage to Clinton had been done, but an FBI finger on the scales helped tip toward the FBI’s favored candidate.

And that is the deep tragedy. For a while in the campaign we thought that we would be lucky. At least we had an exceptionally qualified candidate that we could choose. The Republican party had someone uniquely unqualified- a man who had failed to develop emotionally into a mature adult. In the debates, he sounded like an immature eighth grader. With women, again, an immature eighth grader - at best. Ridicule of physical disabilities of others - the same. Maybe the Republicans would fix whatever had gone wrong in their 2016 party primary process to make this mistake never happen again. Maybe candidates who were very conservative, but willing to work on policy with those who disagree, like Kasich and Huntsman, would somehow rise up in future elections.  Tragically, the constant drumbeat of nonsensical propaganda was successful. The candidacy of Hillary Clinton was potentially doomed. As a nation, we had done this to ourselves. A woman who believes in our better selves was defeated. A man who has always believed in himself first, last, and foremost, had won.

As Hillary Clinton told us in the debates, It is not about her, or them -the candidates. It is about us. We have lost and we did not have to lose so much, something so precious, so wonderful. A wonderful, great nation is faced with further degradation and possible destruction. For these are the conservative conservatives in charge. The far end of the spectrum -those wielding power are the most narcissistic. Trump has Giuliani and Christie - for them, only power matters. Like Putin, all political action is an expression of power and personal glory. The goal is to hold power and always to win. That’s why Christie cared more about punishing the mayor of Fort Lee for not crossing parties to back him than he cared about not punishing the good people of Fort Lee in their innocent drive to work that week.  Trump, Giuliani and Christie. Describing the distinction as a difference in political philosophy misses the point. They care most about themselves. If you support them, fine, then you can be on their team. If you do not support them and agree with everything they say, you are not on their team, which makes you their enemy.

From that perspective, Trump in particular is not a leader of anything other than his small team. Anyone who idolizes the narcissist is welcome. All others need not apply. That Giuliani and Christie both ran for President this decade is interesting. They and other candidates have been outdone by DT.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 prompted a feeling of revulsion in many Americans that is difficult for many of us to comprehend. What's not to like? That seems like a more normal reaction. Our mainstream media went on to report the hatred as somehow normal. "Many voters hate President Obama." Huh? Is there a reason? The key phrase after 2008 was that they wanted to "take their country back." Back from whom? The majority who had elected him? Back to what? Hmm. The media sometimes calls it racism. I call it black and white thinking. That seems to cover the bases.

The feeling of hatred fueled feelings of anger. Some pundits have likened that to the feelings of half the country at the current election result, but there is a difference. The feeling of shock will subside, but the intense feelings of pain and anguish run deep and will continue longer. We feel enormous pain because we know we face a process of deep alienation from our federal government that will only grow. This feeling does not resemble any other time in history - not GW Bush, not Reagan, not even Nixon. GHW Bush is not even on that map. There was no pain anything like this at any of those times.

This pain is most like the weeks following 9/11 and the weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy in the level of despair. But in a way, it is deeper. In 9/11 we lost thousands of our fellow citizens to cold blooded murder. In 1963 we lost the leader of our nation to cold blooded murder. In those times there was fear and enormous pain of loss, but sincere hope that we could count on our strengths and ability to work together to pull ourselves up and out of the abyss. In 2016, we feel deeply that we lost a functioning democracy because the leader of the country has no respect and apparently little understanding of the most cherished government institutions - and we are going to have our noses rubbed in it for the next four years. It is almost as if Vladimir Putin himself was just elected President of the United States.  We are going to have the progress made in society over the  past decade taken away and experience a rush backwards like we have never seen.

The machinery of democracy broke this week. The wheels of democracy fell off. That is a statement about process, but the pain is all too real. Like a death of a loved one. The tragedy is enormous. Liberal democracy died a tragic death. We had survived the weakening of the political system in the Congress and downward slide of mainstream political media over recent decades, but this was the nail in the coffin. That is not to say that we can not restore liberal democracy, but in order to do so, we not only need to defeat Trumpism, we need to reverse the process of decline in the “just don’t get it” mainstream media who need to adopt a completely different set of journalistic standards. The “he said/she said” balance needs to die so that we may live and thrive. Of course, mainstream media may not exist much longer. And our democracy may soon experience painful changes in political institutions.

In the four years ahead, we will see a battle continue between the Star Spangled Banner side and the America the Beautiful side. The writing on this blog in 2016 has been mostly pessimistic about Republican strategy in Congress, but optimistic in 2016 about the likelihood of a Democratic presidential victory, buying time for reform. The primary argument has been that we need to act swiftly and decisively to reformulate journalistic standards before it is too late. Otherwise, the political choices will ever be framed for voters in a way that makes no sense, as in 2016. So, if DT had lost the election, the Republican party would go back to the drawing board and party leaders would decide - Okay,  our strategies were working pretty well, but they tore down our party,  and we may need to make changes. Instead, we are faced with a Republican party which, upon a Trump victory, is deciding, okay, we can work with this. We can pack the Supreme Court with our nominees, having stonewalled Merrick Garland. We can stall out government when a Democrat is president, even for two terms. We can restore the functioning of government when a Republican is president. The tone of Republican primaries will be worse than ever, but Republican strategy seems to be - if the mainstream media continues to exist, we can count on them as an unwitting ally, and if the mainstream media disintegrates into multiple smaller outlets, so much the better.