Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit Bremorse

When we say "when tactics become policy" it sounds like a classification error, like saying "when an adverb becomes a horse". What we mean is that the machinery of democracy can be pushed by the use of tactical maneuvers including the failure to compromise and inaction to the point of policy results that no one really wants.

Something like this just happened with Brexit in the U.K., except that instead of inaction, the result was action. Or is it? More on that later.

David Cameron decided that his best move to keep his post and hold his coalition together for last year's parliamentary elections was to promise to hold the EU exit/remain referendum that just took place, but then to work in favor of the U.K. remaining in the EU. So a tactical move for political advantage has plunged Europe into unnecessary chaos. Or should that be "the U.K. and Europe". Or "the U.K. ex Scotland plus Europe with Scotland" in chaos? Anyway, chaos for sure.


On a small scale, we recently saw a similar tactic fail in the U.S. on the issue of women registering for the draft - a person calling for a vote in a situation where that person's preferred outcome, the status quo, would have prevailed without having any vote, but the voting proceeds with the opposite result.

As reported April 28th in the Washington Post,

 ‘Right now the draft is sexist,” said Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), who filed an amendment to the House’s annual defense authorization bill to require women between the ages of 18 and 26 to register for the Selective Service, the government agency that keeps records of who is eligible to be conscripted.
Hunter, who is against the Obama administration’s recent policy change allowing women to serve in all combat roles, said he proposed the measure only to start a discussion about the draft. He voted against his amendment, arguing that anyone who favored it would be siding with the administration.
But Hunter’s gamble that committee members would shy away from forcing women into the draft backfired when a slim majority — including five Republicans — opted to endorse the measure by a vote of 32 to 30.
“We have a standards-based force now, and we don’t have a standards-based Selective Service,” Rep. Christopher P. Gibson (R-N.Y.) argued, joining Democrats, all but one of whom also supported the measure.”

The obvious lesson is to be a bit more careful forcing a vote on an issue where you are happy with the outcome that would prevail if no vote is held.

The jockeying for position of British politicians in the aftermath of the referendum will be fascinating. Legally it was a nonbinding referendum, but the outcome of the vote was accepted as determinative as if it were binding. Is there no way out? European politicians will keep pushing the British to move forward quickly to eliminate the uncertainty on the Continent. Watch over the next week or two for British politicians who start to argue that the result was never to be considered a binding result  --all in the heat of the campaign!!-- but rather should be taken as a strong showing of discontent that must be addressed. David Cameron has washed his hands of it and nobody else will want to own it.

The one great hope is that behind all that apparent chaos, there could emerge a method to the madness from behind the scenes.

Blair Watch Project

Tony Blair had a great on-point opinion piece on Brexit if you can ignore the source and set aside the Iraq war for the moment.

Blair gets so much right including his main point in the final sentence that "the center must hold". That has been a key argument of this blog - that the center in the U.S. has been failing -  the political center in the form of (1) those moderate Republicans (to the exent they exist) who vote with their party on all issues, thus functioning as conservatives instead of moderates, and (2) those members of the objective press who define objectivity to mean reporting on every issue as if there are always two equal and opposite sides.

NYT opinion:
Tony Blair: Brexit's Stunning Coup

This writer's comment on Blair NYT:
 What's stunning is not the "decision of British voters" to leave the EU but the decision of Cameron to push for this referendum. Voters were given a binary choice with a majority permitted to rule on a decision with incredibly far-reaching consequences. Voters are rarely given the opportunity to express their displeasure so directly. Blair's statement that the center must hold is correct, but misses the point that the center can not hold if threatened by blunders of process. Our system in the U.S requires a 2/3rd majority in both the House and Senate and ratification of 3/4ths of the state legislatures for amendments to the Constitution, for example. Imagine what would happen to the U.S if states could hold plebiscites for withdrawal from the union with the result dependent only upon a majority. Blair's mistake in joining with Bush on the Iraq war will go down as the greater blunder than Cameron's, but they are both whoppers.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The British are leaving! The British are leaving!

The era of nation states is all that most of us have known, with the era of democratic republics even more recent. No surprise that there is an in or out tension for British membership in the European Community. After all, Britain kept one foot out by retaining their own currency. From a historical perspective, many of us remember the 1960s drumbeat of news around British membership, or not, in the "Common Market".

News reports have focused on parallels with the populist strain of the U.S. political environment, but there is also a parallel with the tension around political structure, with important differences.

 As part of the European Union, the U.K. is something of a confederation within a confederation. The vote to strengthen independence of the U.K. weakens the EU, but could weaken the U.K. based on the voting patterns within the U.K.

The vote in Britain calls back into question the vote for Scotland as a separate entity to remain with Europe, followed by less urgent and less likely possibilities for exit - Northern Ireland from the U.K. and Greece or others from the European community. The vote for Brexit is a vote to maintain and strengthen British sovereignty instead of submitting to an economic confederation of nations of Europe and associated institutions like the International Monetary Fund that collectively operate more and more like a political entity as those institutions evolve.

In the U.S. financial markets have been roiled by the Brexit vote, but the amount of disruption to the U.K. or even to Europe is a faint echo of the emerging instability of the political structure in the U.S. The American political breakdown is a more organic process which has not yet resulted in a severe political dislocation, but the signs are all there.

The Supreme Court is on edge with one vacant seat.
If the Republican presidential candidate wins the presidential election and appoints a justice to the court who is approved by a Republican-controlled Senate, that individual will be viewed as illegitimate by Democrats for that person's entire term. If, instead, the Democrats control the Senate, how do they consent to a nominee who is not to their liking now that the Republican's have set the precedent of complete obstruction of a nominee. The logical response would be to block any nominee who is not Merritt Garland.

If the Democratic presidential candidate wins the presidential election and the Democrats retake the Senate, the Republican-controlled Senate could end up approving Judge Garland in the lame duck term. Mitch McConnell has said this would not happen, but Garland is relatively conservative and old for a Supreme Court nominee. McConnell could argue that his caucus demanded this action and he bent to the will of his caucus. Still, if this happens, even though the action exposes the cynical ploy of refusing to hold hearings for Garland in the first place, it would have the effect of retroactively restoring a modicum of functionality to the three branches of government in distress - the President, to honor his original appointment, the Senate to hold hearings on that nominee after all, and the Court, to fill the vacant seat.

If Mitch McConnell and the Republicans stick to not having confirmation hearings in the lame duck session, with a Democratic president, this would afford them the opportunity to stall the program of the next president, either as the minority party, or as the majority in the Senate, depending upon the outcome.  As stated in earlier posts, there is no reason to believe that with a President Clinton a Republican Senate majority would approve any candidate who is on the moderate to liberal spectrum. The argument would be that it is just so important to the country, which was the argument to shut down the government and even go into default -- it was so important to the country.

Any of the above Supreme Court scenarios could result in serious political tension that would lead to further instability in the U.S. and a serious dislocation.

The Candidacy of Donald Trump
The significance of the candidacy of Trump is that there has never been any major party candidate quite like this. That is clear, but there have been different viewpoints on how much this matters. If Trump wins the Presidency, that win becomes more dramatic than the Brexit referendum because Republican Party politics on the national level can never be quite the same again and Democratic Party politics will also require serious adjustments. If Trump loses, Republican Party strategists will go back and try to diagnose the problem and find solutions, but there will continue to be pressure on the tried and true campaign formulas that were wildly unsuccessful for establishment Republicans in 2016.

The Turmoil in Congress
Any semblance of institutional order in the House and Senate can be expected to continue its breakdown as noted here.

Ironically, on this day that Brexit is the big news, the NYT has an article that walks through the dysfunction within all three branches of government without quite pointing the finger as directly at the Republican controlled Congress, with the executive and judicial branches the victims,  as we would find justified. Three Separate, Equal, and Dysfunctional Branches of Government.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Moral Minority

It just became a moral issue.
Image result for sit in 1960
The central tenet of this blog is that tactics effectively become policy for the country when the Republican Party holds power and in the interest of conservative positions never give an inch because if you give them an inch, they ask for two, then three and eventually you gave up a mile. So never give in and hide behind arguments - like the 2nd amendment, that you may or may not believe, but what you truly believe in most strongly is - never give an inch. So that is the policy - do nothing as a policy - no matter what, even if the world keeps changing around you - even if you agree with the one inch or the two inches, but you oppose them for fear of the mile. Gun law may be the most extreme example - never give an inch on any type of weapon that can be called a gun, no matter how destructive, never give an inch on ammunition, on safety clips, and so on.

Sit-ins became a tool in the 1960s for those whose power was much less than those in power. In fact, it was the only thing they could do to effect change - draw attention to the actions of the powerful - just look at them and you will agree that what they are doing is outrageous.
Image result for house democrats sit in
The Democrats in the House are currently drawing the attention of the country to their powerlessness in the Congress, to the fact that the way Congress works now, they can not influence policy in any meaningful way. Only the people have the power. The people can only exercise this power in the way they vote in November. But that will only happen if more moderate Republicans lose elections for failure to tack toward more moderate positions from time to time. So far in the 2000s, moderate Republicans who fail to vote for the most conservative positions on a consistent basis have been punished at the polls. We will see if 2016 is any different.

This sit-in by House Democrats is only one of many symptoms of a system that is slowly breaking down. Much of the mainstream press is skeptical that this action will accomplish anything. These are the pundits who understand that establishing democracy in countries that have only experienced authoritarian regimes, but fail to understand that restoring a functioning democracy in the U.S. is a long and difficult process.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Where are We Heading?

If not a four-party system, where are we heading? One guess.

Bad Pols or Bad Polls?

Even as party Democrats work in unison to combat Republican efforts to limit voter turnout that tends to favor Democrats at the polls (voter ID, early voting, absentee ballots, shutting down polling places in Democratic strongholds), under the radar accusations are being leveled at the Clinton campaign (actually unnamed alleged bad actors) of election fraud in the Democratic primaries and caucuses this year. In a paper (not a study - no peer review) that has been rushed to the public due to the importance of timeliness  over academic rigor in an election year, two statisticians assert that electoral fraud favoring Clinton has definitely occurred based on the magnitude of the difference between the preliminary exit poll results and the actual vote tallies in states using voting machines with a paper trail vs. those states without the paper trail.

Image result for hillary clinton
One obvious flaw in this approach is that they do not consider all of the possible relevant differences between those two groupings of states. The authors point to the internet being "littered" with allegations of electoral fraud as support for their findings as if there is something statistically significant about that - the "where there is smoke, there is fire" argument.
Ironically, it was mainly the states under the greatest Republican control in the early 2000's that started adopting the use of touchscreen machines without the audit trail.
At the moment, the mainstream press is avoiding this topic, though a The Nation article debunking the case for electoral fraud followed an earlier article and some debate on the subject.
For now, the Bernie supporters are running with this one, but we can expect the Trump campaign to pick this up and make their "crooked" Hillary allegations later this year if Bernie supporters and the candidate himself fall in line behind Clinton at the convention. Maybe the authors of the paper can subject their paper to critical peer review in the meantime while they continue their search for alternative explanations of the data. At the moment responsible academics do not appear to be taking this paper seriously, but the conclusion is too juicy for this not to nose its way into the mainstream media in the next few weeks. Bernie Sanders is the one person who could nip it in the bud, but he is trying to hold on to as much power as he can at least through the convention, so he is likely to remain quiet until then.
Image result for bernie sanders
Source: Huffingtonpost

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Four Party System

Our March 24, 2016 Post - Down the Road muses on the possibility of a 4-party system evolving in the U.S. as a possible path to avoid persistent deterioration of government function. Lo and behold, Bloomberg News and Jeffrey Sachs have similar thoughts: This Campaign Broke the System. Of course, on this blog, we do not see the Trump campaign as an aberration that broke the system, but as a not unlikely outcome of the sliding quality of Republican presidential campaigns over recent decades.

They Should Have Known Better

Elizabeth Holmes had a dream that a small drop of blood could replace test tube(s) worth of blood used to run a range of blood tests. She dropped out of Stanford to pursue that dream, the story goes, to help others like her with a deathly fear of drawing blood.
Image result for elizabeth holmes
The problem was that a dream is not the same as a reality and there never was real evidence that the technology existed, only evidence that the dream existed.
As has been well documented,  she was able to find backers and prominent leaders to join her board, mostly older men either outside the health care field or not currently practicing.
They should have known better.
That includes Walgreens - too anxious to close the deal. FOMO!
Google and others knew better than to invest. In interviews with Holmes,  the Google folks were never presented the evidence they needed to believe that the technology would work.
Reminds us a little of this man.
Source: Wikipedia
Some individuals and organizations knew better about Madoff all along. The high investment returns year after year could not be legitimate in the real world. That is not scientific proof, but by inference it was clear that the only way such returns were possible was in a Ponzi scheme or front running. It turned out to be a Ponzi scheme. Many organizations steered their clients away from Madoff. Other advisors said they did not know how he achieved those returns. No legitimate investment advisor could actively recommend Madoff because no legitimate investment advisor had any idea what Madoff was doing that could be legitimate.
In order to avoid dangerous situations, we do not need proof. We only need enough information to convince ourselves by inference that something is not right. To be convinced by claims of a breakthrough technology, we need substance - evidence, not happy talk and a black turtleneck, even with the confident speech with the appropriate hand gestures and head tilt.

More than anything else, this blog is about making inferences from a limited set of data on the statements and actions of individuals and groups, especially, but not exclusively in the political arena. We then observe whether the political commentators appropriately consider these arguments or whether they instead are sidetracked by the claims made by the political actors. We find the objective press custom of addressing statements or actions of one side of the aisle by asking the other side of the aisle what they think to be an inadequate response to events. We also find the objective press practice of reporting on the actions of one side of the aisle based on statements by that side (the first half of the "he said/she said" reporting process) almost at face value instead of directly reporting what those actions represent to be inadequate and therefore inaccurate reporting. The voter suppression efforts of Republicans throughout the country are an example of this.

Voter ID Laws - Framing the Issue

In their May 3, 2016 post on their blog, Joseph and Mark (last names not included in the bio on their site) criticize the failure of a NY Times article on voter ID laws to promptly address the absence of voter impersonation fraud until nearly the end of the piece, while introducing the voter ID law subject at the beginning in the usual "he said/she said - two sides to every issue" manner still considered the standard for objective reporting outside the cable news sphere of Foxnews/MSNBC.
To borrow from Mann and Ornstein, it's even worse than that.
First of all, any objective piece about voter ID laws -- "voter ID" - what could be more reasonable? -- any piece, to be objective, should refer to 'voter impersonation fraud" rather than the vague and more general terms "voter fraud" and "election fraud" which encompass other practices voter ID does not address. Election fraud history includes many examples of practices that voter ID does not address, like buying votes, counting nonexistent ballots as valid, not counting votes that ought to be counted, and, in fact, denying the right to vote to people who are entitled to vote, which is actually a practice that voter ID promotes by permitting peremptory challenges to eligible individuals who show up to vote. The main deterrent to voter impersonation fraud, in the absence of these new laws,  is that an individual who is not a qualified voter would risk being prosecuted and convicted of a felony when the only upside to that individual would be to increase the vote tally of their favored candidate(s) by one vote.

Even more to the point, voter ID laws emerged as one of a series of measures to suppress voter registration and voter turnout and the ability of qualified citizens to vote as a distinctly Republican Party practice.

In 2002, NH state Republican Party operatives hired an outside telemarketer to jam the phone lines of a get out the vote effort of the state Democratic Party and the firefighters union. (2002 New Hampshire Senate election phone jamming scandal.)
Only weeks after the 2006 midterm elections, in an unprecedented step, seven of the U.S. Attorneys, all Republicans, were fired by the Bush administration's Department of Justice. The reasons for the firings included the failure to prosecute allegations of voter election fraud that would "hamper Democratic voter registration." (2006 US Attorneys Dismissals Controversy) Although it had become customary for US Attorneys to submit their resignations at the end of a Presidential administration, this kind of firing of attorneys of the same party after the midterm elections had all of the appearances of political motivation. The Bush administration figures may have believed the firings would escape notice, but political followers began to notice immediately. The line of argument from the Bush administration supporters became - "this happens all the time - when Clinton became President all of the US Attorneys were replaced", deftly avoiding altogether the actual substance of the argument that politics was intruding dangerously into the administration of justice.

If you are a party trying to keep power in a democracy, but are concerned that demographic changes and the tide of popular opinion are turning away from you, then-
Eliminate practices that make it easier for broad swaths of the public to vote, such as early voting, absentee ballots, college student registration in university towns, and get out the vote drives.
Put in place practices that make registration and voting more difficult for those more likely to vote for Democrates - enacting voter ID laws and shutting down polling places in Democratic strongholds.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Framing to Win vs. Framing for Understanding

"Hamilton continues Broadway dominance with 11 Tonys" read today's headline in the Washington Post, along with the subheading "The blockbuster musical about the Founding Fathers fell short of the record for most Tony Awards held by "The Producers".
Image result for hamilton tonys

(Source: USAToday)
OK, so it is an awards show and therefore a competition among this year's nominees, which never feels quite right in the creative arts as opposed to athletic competition. Still, in this 2015-2016 Broadway season , best described as the blowout year of Hamilton, for the headline to say that Hamilton in any way"falls short" seems like a failure of framing. Even "second only to The Producers all-time" would have been more accurate, but still not quite faithfully represent the completely positive night and year for Hamilton.

So why does that matter? Seems like a small quibble, but it illustrates the problem of framing in the news media - the gravitation toward the horse race in the elections as well as the most tantalizing tidbit,  which can mean setting records or not, or a candidate making the most outrageous statements with not enough treatment of the issue "What is really going on here?" More to come on this framing topic in the next post.