Monday, October 31, 2016

Biased Much?

Yesterday's post The Power to Investigate sets forth the dangers to democracy of endless investigations of political figures. Today, Vox has posted on a related concept Clinton's critics know she's guilty, they're just trying to decide what she's guilty of. In this piece, Matthew Yglesias calls this the Prime Directive driving Clinton bad coverage, worthy of capitalization. Our reference to "double derivative" investigations is given more user-friendly terms by Vox - "The investigation pivots" and "Fishing into the next pond.". As Yglesias states in the final sentence, "What if Clinton has been getting away with it for all these years because she hasn't done anything wrong?"

Yglesias happens to be the author of American Democracy is Doomed from September 2015 which follows similar reasoning to the arguments in this blog, (The perils of presidential democracy, Constitutional hardball, raising the stakes), so his perspective on endless investigations is no surprise.

Two years ago, in the first days following the 60 minutes hit job by Lara Logan, but before the deeply biased flaws in the segment became public, I overheard a water cooler comment by a colleague at the office -- "I don't think we are ever going to know what really happened at Benghazi". My co-worker was in effect saying, "That Hillary Clinton is so evil, so obviously guilty of gross wrongdoing, if only we had the evidence to prove it, but we never will, because she is so slippery!" Biased much? Later that week, almost before you could shout "Lock Her Up!" three times, the incredible bias of the 60 minutes piece and the fraudulence of Logan's primary source were revealed. Now, in a healthy media environment, one might find calmer heads thinking - we better be more careful here, not just 60 minutes, but all investigative news outlets.

In a companion piece, Two experts say Donald Trump should be investigated for criminal tax evasion, Vox lays out reasons that Trump could be indicted for abuse of the rules that govern charities. The big difference between the Clinton and Trump situations is that the Clinton investigations always require a lot more digging and sifting to uncover new information, almost like panning for gold. The Vox article says "Trump should be investigated", but all of the salient facts are known about Trump, except that maybe he did not know what he was doing was illegal if he knew, but not necessarily illegal if he did not. Got that. It was wrong, which is why it was illegal, but white collar crime is difficult to prosecute because so much turns on intention.

The stories about Comey this week make the claim that FBI investigators have been pressuring Comey to prosecute Clinton. In some versions of the story, Comey was afraid the news would leak anyway and so decided to write the letter. We are not hearing about similar moves to prosecute Trump for the abuse of his charitable foundation. Nor have we heard about any investigations under way on Trump's relationship with the Russian leadership, despite his odd denial that the Russian government is behind the hacking of DNC emails.

Unfortunately the obsession with Clinton is only the latest instance of off-base FBI conclusions. The FBI was sure that Richard Jewell was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber, but he was not. The FBI took years to figure out that Robert Hanssen was a mole in their operations. And the FBI was sure that Steven Hatfill committed the anthrax attacks in 2001 -- oh sorry, he was just a "person of interest" who necessitated agents in hazmat suits rifle through his home as news crews filmed. The FBI later settled on Bruce Ivins' guilt in the anthrax case. So in two of the cases, the FBI placed focus on an innocent person who was made to look guilty, and the press cooperated, as they often do. In the case of Hansen, the guilty party was their own guy -- the FBI took years to uncover Hanssen's role following many breaches and security lapses.

Investigations instigated from bias are an enormous problem. The Vox article correctly asks - what if she has done nothing wrong, but the problem goes well beyond the Vox question. If investigations are pursued primarily because they may turn up wrongdoing, or, if not, will result in a different investigation, that may turn up wrongdoing, or, if not will result in...and so on, forever, in an infinite loop,  the result is limited to either (1) wrongdoing uncovered or (2) something that can pass as wrongdoing is found, all without regard to significance or proportionality.  As a society, we need to recognize this is a serious threat to a democratic system of government.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Power to Investigate

The power to investigate is the power to destroy. We often hear that the U.S. president is the most powerful person in the world, but that has more to do with the nuclear codes and that power to destroy than the power for positive change in the world. The president's power is checked at every turn by other powerful entities like Congress.

The Watergate Committee understood their power to destroy and took great pains to reach consensus at each major step in their investigation. The investigation was an attempt to understand what just happened - who did what, when and why? At whose direction? Republican Senator Howard Baker's famous "What did the president know and when did he know" was spoken from the perspective -- we do not presume guilt and seek to find evidence to support the conclusion of guilt---we assume the possibility of innocence, but we try to understand what just happened and what is going on. The truly bipartisan consensus of seriousness of purpose and care with regard to the potential danger for democracy was paramount.
We find ourselves at a very different juncture. Investigation is used as a tool for political advocacy. The red flag is the double derivative:
1. Multiple Benghazi investigations. After the first investigation, all other investigations are instigated due to disappointment at the results of the first, or to search for new material for unrelated investigations.
2. Clinton private email server is discovered as a result of the Benghazi investigations. Otherwise, we would not know about the server. That puts us in the derivative mode. If you investigate enough and never close the investigation, you are sure to find something.
3. The latest batch of emails, about which we have no information, is also discovered as a result of an "unrelated investigation", said to be the Weiner investigation.

But here we go again - constant investigation mode.  All that matters is the investigation in this world. Nothing else counts. Timing of revelations is ignored. Perspective on proportionality is ignored. The fact that the choice to investigate or not, every step of the way, matters a great deal is ignored.
So investigation (2) derives from (1). That is the derivative.
And investigation (3) derives from the Weiner investigation. But the interest in the treatment of the emails in (3) derives from (2) which derives from (1). So that puts us in second derivative mode, which is a big red flag that screams out - Is this any way to run a country?

Rep. Chaffetz of Utah threatens endless investigations. This stolid stance works as a tactic if the representative does not care about moving forward with legislation because there is never a need to work with colleagues who disagree on some issues, but can agree on others -- to compromise. His investigations do double duty -- they also succeed in distracting from policy objectives. Here we are in 2016, with the Republican strategy to stall out the Congress until 2018, 2020, or beyond -- whenever they finally hold power in Congress working with a Republican president, or, if that never happens, to stall forever.

The continuing endless investigations are just one component of the search for disqualifiers. As a society, we are the victims, subject to the discretion of the powers that be to pursue the search, or not, depending on their own objectives, without regard to the impact on confidence in our government. We have already seen where this does and does not lead.

Stay tuned for more about the role of the Director of the FBI - to report to the Attorney General or to report to the Congress.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Advice From A Hit Man

Three Days of the Condor (book and film) is a great example of the classic genre of the talented protagonist who is thrown into an impossible life and death situation and must survive by sheer wit against more powerful, ruthless experts in spycraft. Think Jason Bourne without the physique or training. In the 1975 film, Robert Redford plays the bookish Joe Turner, a low level CIA analyst who returns to the office mid-day to find all of his co-workers have been assassinated. At first Turner contacts headquarters for help, but in the rendezvous barely escapes alive. Realizing he has no place to hide and can not trust anyone, he kidnaps a total stranger, a woman returning to her apartment with groceries, to make her apartment a temporary safe haven for him as he lauches a one-man investigation.
The fascinating element that drives the plot of the film is the series of major adjustments that Turner realizes he must make in order to survive and attempt to bring the killers to justice.
One of the best lines of the film comes when Turner is confronted with the hired hit man Joubert played by Max Van Sydow, who had been after him, but did not have Turner on his hit list that particular day. Joubert tells Turner it is not safe for him to return to his life in New York City:

"It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift."

In the finale Turner announces to the CIA head of department that he has handed the New York Times the story, presuming they will print it, which will secure his safety and expose the rogue CIA operation. But will the NYT print it?
All through 2016 we have been receiving warnings about threats to democracy, threats to the republic, but we are not used to this. The American political system has been experiencing a slow motion crash for many years now, but the immediate effects have been accelerating this year with the Trump candidacy and the suspension of hearings on the Supreme Court nomination. Clueless pundits have described this as a "not normal" year of campaigning.  Other pundits have been more perceptive, describing the Trump candidacy as a normal extension of GOP campaign strategy going back decades. But few if any pundits are describing the only two possible outcomes: Either the Republican Party splits into two parties, or the democratic underpinning of our system collapses.

"It will happen this way. A candidate who knows nothing about policy will focus the debate on attacking personalities and will make wild claims about his own capabilities. He will belittle opponents and offer simple solutions to complex problems as he appeals to hate, fear, and resentment. He may even call for his followers to take matters into their own hands if he does not win the election. Moderate people will wait for other moderate people to take necessary action, but no one will."

We are a nation with many Joe Turners. Each day feels like the day before, but one day you wake up and everything has changed. Only terrible choices remain. Republicans who stick to the party no matter what happens in the Congress or the campaigns or who, like Paul Ryan try to have it both ways, placing short term perceived gain above long term impact.  Journalists who wake up every day trying to be objective, who define objectivity as maintaining balance, no matter what they observe. Eventually someday comes, and if you receive advice from a hit man, you need to take it.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Winning Is the only Thing

Paul Waldman has an insightful piece in WaPo today entitled Republicans are already treating Clinton's presidency as illegitimate, but that does not match the text and the real title should be more like "Republicans play by their own rules, and have for a long time." Kudos to Waldman for resurfacing the "Brooks Brothers" riot outside the year 2000 Florida recount which was staged by Republican operatives, but treated by the press as a protest by regular citizens. He points out that Republicans play by their own set of rules in the sense that they violate established political norms at will in order to gain political advantage, which is, of course, developed as a key feature of modern American politics in the Six Points and many posts on this blog. Waldman also mentions the willingness to do a "180 degree turn" if there is political advantage, which will apply to the Supreme Court nomination process if Clinton wins on Nov. 8th. If the Republicans hold the Senate majority, they will decide whether to approve the Garland nomination or stonewall Clinton appointee(s).

Unfortunately, he ends the piece with the suggestion that Democrats may change the rule on filibusters in response to a potential Republican filibuster of the Supreme Court. In fact, one of the suggested areas of reform by Mann/Ornstein, Dionne, and others is exactly to eliminate or reduce further the ability of the Senate minority to filibuster by rule precisely because the filibuster has been abused so much during Obama's presidency. Waldman's "Two Can Play This Game" is therefore unfortunately cynical and off-the-mark. "Both sides" don't do it, not the same way. The Republican strategy is to take advantage of gaps in the rules - how government is structured, as well as weaknesses in the system, including he said/she said political reporting.

This is Gonna Hurt You More Than It Hurts Me

Now that most strategists foresee a Clinton victory, we are hearing about plans to launch endless investigations and impeach the new president.

This tactic needs to be seen for what it is. With Republicans having almost a lock on the House of Representatives, and a strong lock on most of those seats, the plan to make life as painful as possible for each new Democratic president sends a clear message to the American people - "Vote for a Democrat for President at your peril because if you do, we will make life as painful as possible for all Americans!"

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Rump Party

In a mostly spot-on piece in the NYT today It's Trump's Party, Paul Krugman asserts "Everyone who endorsed Mr. Trump in the past owns him now;" which is true, and predicts that Republicans in Congress can be expected to do everything they can to make America ungovernable. This prediction is consistent with the Six Points and the general theme of this blog. But he goes on to say "Some observers are already speculating about a regime in which the House is effectively run by Democrats in cooperation with a small rump of rational Republicans. Let's hope so - but it's no way to manage a great nation."

I disagree. What's wrong with that? A political party is an artificial construct - a group of people who share some common interests, generally most interests, but disagree on others. If the Republican Party is fitfully falling apart, as it has seemed to be since at least 2010, then there can be no greater stabilizing influence than a handful of moderate Republicans who finally realize that by voting in Congress with the Tea Party (or its successor), they are not full-fledged members of the Republican Party and can exert more influence by siding with Democrats when that works for them and their constituents, but voting with Republicans when warranted. In practical terms, both House and Senate members need to be willing to switch party affiliation if necessary to avoid government shutdowns, denial of hearings on judicial appointments, and other critical matters of governance. Sure, that is a tall order for a House member with only a two-year term, but there really is no alternative. Efforts at rump politics have fallen short in the past, mainly because the rump group's agreement to agree tends to fall apart. Basically, if you have already "betrayed" your larger party by joining a rump group, what keeps you faithful to the rump group?

The best hope for a rump style success lies in the margin of the Republican majority that holds after Nov. 8th in the Senate or House. The smaller the margin, the greater the power of the individual member to exert his or her own power to shift the balance of power on important issues in that chamber.  Here in New England, independence is championed as a virtue with Bernie Sanders as the most visible example. But we have had Lowell Weicker (from Republican to Independent) , Joe Lieberman (from Democrat to "Independent Democrat" after his primary loss) and Angus King (from Democrat to Independent) among others. Lincoln Chaffee glided from Republican to Independent to Democrat.

If the ruling margin in the Senate is close, each Senator who is ideologically close to the middle can exert enormous power by being flexible about party loyalty. This happened after the year 2000 election. The Senate was 50-50 with the Vice President Cheney the tie-breaking vote for Republicans after the January 20, 2001 inauguration. But in June, 2001 Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched from Republican to Independent to caucus with Democrats and hand them the majority. If Republicans are obstructionist as expected, moderate Republicans will be under pressure to do more than beg their colleagues to be reasonable - never an effective tactic with Ted Cruz, for example. Switching to the opposing party feels too much like being a turncoat, but calling yourself independent has a positive ring to it.

By way of contrast with the above examples,  Scott Brown of Massachusetts, as a member for the Senate up for reelection, touted his "bipartisanship". But that was a smokescreen -- he made a show of voting with Democrats when the outcome was predetermined regardless of his vote while he voted with his Republican Party stalwarts when it mattered. Brown even made a show of standing to applaud President Obama at the State of the Union address at moments when Republicans remained sitting, which fooled no one about his independence. No surprise that his main selling point to be elected in opposition to Elizabeth Warren was to accuse her trumping up her Native American heritage.

So the independence must be real, not faked. More on this after November 8th.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Jockeying for Position

In the original Six Points thesis post from February 2016, we conclude that Things Will Only Get Worse, which is consistent with the retitled It's Even Worse Than It Looks Was from Mann/Ornstein.
All is not hopeless, but things do continue to get worse without any sign of an upturn.

The ugliness of the birther lie was that it was concocted from thin air - completely in bad faith - as a tactic to consolidate support of extreme elements of conservatism, and thus fed the rise of Trump and Trumpism. The all-tactics-all-the-time approach to political success has led us to Trump's latest ugliness that he will not (may not) honor the results of the electoral process. He sees yet another weakness in our political system that relies on parties (meaning individuals or institutions) acting in good faith. No law requires a candidate to honor and recognize the popular will at the ballot. And we have seen that process is an easy target because it is an abstraction. Actions in bad faith for tactical advantage are rewarded unless they are immediately called out for what they are. When a "fair and balanced" press bends over backwards to avoid even the appearance of objectivity, depiction of reality suffers.
The point here is that Trump's latest and greatest affront is a new low - beyond the pale in a new way, which illustrates that we are unfortunately still going downhill in politics. With the Republican Party leadership continuing their stony silence, we have no reason to expect revulsion at Trump to result in resolve to shed pure party loyalty in favor of democracy. Instead, we must expect Republican leaders will be jockeying for position to maintain as much power in the next Congress.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Implausible Deniability

Donald T. has a long litany of statements that he has denied making, or he or his team have denied that the statements mean what they literally mean. At some point, the denials are simply not credible and we must conclude we are witnessing pure gamesmanship. But what is the game?
DT's so-called "birther lie" was not a lie at all. As a conspiracy theory, the birther movement was a quest for shelter from the storm of "those people" taking over the U.S. government- hence the immediate reaction of a vocal minority to "take our country back" following the election of Obama in 2008. DT did not reject the "birther" claim until it had served its purpose to delegitimize the presidency throughout virtually all of Obams's administration.
So now we have the statement that he will not accept the results of the election, which is being morphed by spokespeople into all kinds of distortions - what about Al Gore? Hmmm. Why does every request for clarification from these people involve invocation of comparisons with Democrats, regardless of applicability? Notice that DT never said "I think it is going to be so close, like Bush/Gore in 2000, that we may not know the results that night."
If we take DT's incredibly narcissistic personality at face value, where the U.S. is not a great nation with a proud democratic history, but instead his playground, we see that DT has nothing to gain from conceding defeat in an election. From his purely selfish standpoint, refusing to concede only makes life more difficult for his opponent-always a good thing. For him, the advantage is being able to suggest throughout the next four years "People are saying I am the real President and the election was stolen from me." Of course, that is the mild form of "It's All About Me". He will likely be demanding that the president be locked up, because that is what he does.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Day 216 America Held Hostage

This is day 216 of the U.S. Senate refusing to hold hearings on the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

On day 215, as widely reported,  Sen. John McCain said, "I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up." Although his spokesperson walked back that line, McCain is stating the obvious. In this heads we win, tails you lose world, Republicans in the Congress hold all the cards and are more than willing to continue to act in bad faith to stretch the process beyond its limits. Three elderly justices could resign or die in the next president's term, but there is no requirement for the Senate to confirm or hold hearings on any nomination put forward by the president.  Under our system, which includes the 60 vote supermajority in the Senate to accomplish anything, there is no legal recourse if the Senate refuses to hold hearings on the Supreme Court nominees. In fact, the Senate could refuse to meet. The Supreme Court has ruled that the Senate can be considered to be in session even when they are not meeting.

As previously noted, the Senate Majority Leader could send the president a short list of acceptable Supreme Court nominees - as short as one person- effectively being the person who actually nominates the justice, instead of the other way around.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

It's Only A Game Focker!

One of the great moments in film comedy occurs during the volleyball game at the Oyster Bay home of former spy Jack Byrnes, the father of Gaylord Focker's (Ben Stiller) fiancee Pam.  Stiller's character struggles for Jack's acceptance and has trouble making a positive impression on the entire family. The volleyball match epitomizes Gaylord's inability to fit in and make anything right. While the match is fiercely competitive, he barely contributes. When he has a chance at a winning shot, he succeeds , but everything goes wrong and he is chided - "It's only a game Focker!"

So that kind of humor seems to play across the spectrum of comedic sensibility. We can all identify with Gaylord and recognize characters like Jack. But political humor is different. Not because we laugh at opponents and commiserate or support our chosen candidates, but because political sensibilities come into play. The asymmetry of sensibilities is striking.
When Comedy is King sets forth an explanation of the workings of political humor when viewers have a shared sensibility, with the argument that political propaganda drowns out any chance for comedic success at Fox News.
But we know those who watch Fox News laugh, so what do they find funny. Bill O'Reilly recently hosted Jesse Watters' Chinatown Edition which played extensively on racial stereotypes, even confusing Japanese with Chinese. The concept of stereotype based on race is literally defining ourselves as members of an in-group and placing the focus on differences between our in-group and the racial outgroup.  This is consistent with closing the mind to new information, limiting ideas and observations to that which we already know and within our comfort zone. This kind of thinking propels fear of all Muslims. O'Reilly and Watters exhibit a remarkable lack of self awareness in their on-screen discussion after the segment. They must be warming up for the "War on Christmas" again this year, which is more of a "War against those who do not observe Christmas".  Remember the Ailes rule -- they accuse you of doing what they are already doing or plan to do.

That brings us back to "It's only a game" which is Donald Trump's line time after time and would be funny if it were not so dangerous. "Locker room talk" in the Billy Bush video. "Sarcasm" to describe calling for Russia to hack the emails of the Democratic National Committee (which they did). "Joking" to describe calls to assassinate the Democratic candidate. And so on. Trump is always ready with a pivot. We have noted the familiar pattern of deny, deflect, distract, accuse, often with anger. But some situations lend themselves more to the "I was only joking" denial of reality.
And it's not only a game only to Trump. It is only a game to the moderate Republican leaders. (By "moderate", we mean the less extreme behaving among remaining Republicans, a moving target for sure.)
For these folks, winning the House and Senate elections is the first order of business. Some of these Members were playing chicken with the functioning of government in the shutdown battles and the threat to default on debt payments. Now the game of chicken requires condoning Trump, but not supporting him, or whatever contradiction of "being in favor of" and "being against" the Member can concoct. When an institution fails, it is not a pretty picture. Collapse can appear gradual, but then become sudden. We are in a tense standoff between the fracturing of the Republican Party and the fracturing of the democratic institutions of the U.S. - the integrity of elections, the functioning of Congress based on two-party structure, and the Supreme Court dependence on the Senate confirmation process. Based on the recent history of Republican tactics including the toleration of Trump and Trumpism, the best guess is that moderate Republicans will allow our democratic institutions to disintegrate -- and then blame the Democrats. With Putin's Russia playing their part to weaken our institutions, we approach the upcoming election, and the aftermath, with trepidation.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Daddy, What's a Republican?

From Krugman in NYT today: "There is also, I'd suggest, an underlying cynicism that pervades the Republican elite. We're talking about a party that has long exploited white backlash to mobilize working-class voters, while enacting policies that actually hurt those voters but benefit the wealthy."

 And this from Zeynep Tufekci: " 'Jail her!' is the collective cry. It’s not an actual policy statement as much as an entertaining fiction. It’s in fact the logical outcome of a political strategy not based on policy differences but on delegitimizing President Obama, and now Hillary Clinton. The Republican establishment has used this strategy to cover over the fact that a substantial chunk of its base does not share its pro-big business, small government politics."

These two comments share a common theme - that the Republican Party at its core is an alliance of two dissimilar groups: (1) white working class and (2) wealthy business people.

Yet from Grossman and Hopkins in Asymmetric Politics, we have: "While the Democratic Party is fundamentally a group coalition, the  Republican Party can be most accurately characterized as the vehicle of an ideological movement. Most Republican voters-- and nearly all of the party's activists, financial supporters, candidates, and officeholders--identify as conservatives and voice support for the abstract values of small government and American cultural traditionalism. In contrast to the variety of single-issue interest groups and social movements that collectively constitute the activist population of the Democratic Party, Republican politics is dominated by a broadly organized, cross-issue conservative movement that now maintains control of the party apparatus. Likewise, the Republican base of support in the mass electorate is less an aggregation of conscious social groups mobilized by the activation of identity based interest than a less diverse set of voters who perceive themselves as mainstream Americans defending the values of individual liberty and traditional morality against the encroachment of left-wing-ideas."

So which is it? More to come.

In Praise of Economists

The Nobel Memorial Prize was awarded today to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrohm for their work on contract theory.
The Nobel committee describes contract theory:
"Contracts are essential to the functioning of modern societies. Oliver Hart’s and Bengt Holmström’s research sheds light on how contracts help us deal with conflicting interests. Contracts help us to be cooperative and trusting when we may otherwise be disobliging and distrusting. ... One important reason for drawing up a contract is to regulate future actions."

Much of our important social theory is recent even though advanced research tools are not needed, in contrast with the natural sciences. The fact that, as a society, we are a little behind in our development of social models is evident in the political sphere. Trump exploited weaknesses in our system of contracts to stiff service providers. He took advantage of tax loopholes and flaws to the max. He pushed laws restricting charitable foundation disbursements to their limits, relying in part on weaknesses in enforcement mechanisms. He also took advantage of a Republican Party primary system that relied on "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" shading of reality to appeal to an otherwise unlikely coalition of wealthy individuals and working class. The functioning of our society depends in large part upon the good faith of individual actors. When individuals are willing to act beyond the limits of social norms, they can achieve short term success at the expense of social institutions. This year, we are experiencing a break down in party politics even as the previously accepted journalistic standard of "balance" continues to be stretched beyond its limits and no longer functions.  The reasoning that economists use to build their models is analogous to the reasoning needed to develop solutions to the current system - to rebuild the models for social choice and the standard for objective political journalism. Criticism of the NYT political reporting has been harsh this year, but you can not expect people who vie for Pulitzer Prizes - in writing - to correctly identify their own problem. For that, we need Nobel Prize winners - preferably in economics. Or just replace "fair and balanced" with truth in context.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

This We Know

Trump has famously told us he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue in NYC and not lose any support. We also know that if he actually shot and killed an innocent person on 5th Avenue in NYC, he would suddenly start talking a lot about Vince Foster in his defense.

No, We Are Not Entertained

Due to the personality driven press coverage of politics in the U.S., nothing commands attention like the battle between the two leading party candidates for president. But the fight over party control in Congress will shape much of policy over the next four years. If Clinton becomes president despite the ferocity of opposition drummed by Trump in his public statements, what can we expect? (The following analysis assumes no severe dislocations occur, such as by violent action by self-styled "patriotic" militias.)

Intraparty squabbles have been evident in the presidential primary season and have only intensified with Trump's emergence as the nominee. Key Republican leaders and moderate candidates like Kelly Ayotte here in New England have not been able to balance holding their party together and being true to basic principles of human decency. Based on the strong commitment of these players to party unity above policy considerations, if Hillary Clinton wins election, we should expect the following:
-The question of holding hearings on the confirmation of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court will resurface. Senate majority leader McConnell has flatly stated that the Senate will not consider the nomination. We can expect some Republican Senators to suggest holding hearings on the nomination because Garland is such a moderate jurist and Hillary Clinton might nominate someone more liberal and much younger than Garland. Any decision will be based on whether the Republicans or Democrats control the Senate. Right now an approximately 50/50 Senate appears most likely. These considerations will be weighed against the advantage to Republican strategists of tying up Clinton's first year in office with a contentious nomination fight. Whoever is nominated will be made subject to an intense investigation primarily as a tactic to prolong the confirmation battle as long as possible. However, if Barack Obama is nominated, which would in some ways be fitting since his nominee was denied, the transparency of opposition for sake of obstruction may be too obvious for Republicans to pursue.

Bottom line: If Democrats win the Senate, Republican Senators will likely pressure McConnell to permit consideration of Garland and he may yield. If Republicans win the Senate, consideration of Garland in the lame duck session seems unlikely.

-If Republicans hold the House majority, we can expect intensive investigations of President Clinton. Committee chairs like Rep. Chaffetz will argue that their investigations are so important to the country, but the result will be that other pressing matters of policy take a back seat. We should expect impeachment hearings, possibly in the lame duck House after the 2018 election, if not sooner.
-Government shutdowns will be revived as a tactic to extract concessions from Democrats.  With the Republican Party in some disarray due to the Trump candidacy, there will be little appetitite even among extremists to allow a shutdown in the lame duck Congress (the continuing resolution is only good until about December 9th). But after January 20th, expect new energy devoted to shutting down the government because it is so important. We can expect the same type of gamesmanship whereby Ted Cruz and the like-minded threaten to shut down the federal government if they do not get their way in negotiations - at the same time that they argue that shutting down the government or even defaulting on the debt are not such a big deal. Congress Models Itself on the Cuban Missile Crisis by Scott C. Monje provides a clear explanation of the Republican Party tactics in game theoretical terms.
-Speaker Ryan will struggle to hold together the Republican Party coalition.
-McConnell will likely continue the strategy of scorched earth opposition to any legislation that could make the new President Clinton look successful. If this was the strategy in 2008 against Obama and the U.S., it can be expected to work even better due to natural resistance of the American public to four consecutive terms of the same party in the White House.
-Democrats will continue to struggle to defeat Republicans in the hearts and minds of Americans on the issues. Republicans will frame the issues in easily understood concrete terms, whether or not accurate, with catchphrases that resonate more than the long sentences crafted by Democrats.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Dueling Leaks

Friday October 7th was a big day in the downward slide of our electoral politics.  Within hours of each other, we received not one, but two leaks perfectly timed to throw each candidate off his or her game in the midst of the final preparations for the make-or-break Sunday night duel.

So now we have Trump on a bus and email clues on HRC talks at Goldman. Not long ago the focus would be on gaffes. "He will be our next President unless he has a big gaffe in the debate or the campaign trail." After more than a year of Trump shockers, gaffes are so passe, but not so leaks.

Dependence on leaks is a direct result of "fair and balanced" news coverage. The logical progression goes like this:
-Objective reporting is defined as fair and balanced(FAB)
-FAB requires objective journalists to report facts without interpretation, context or meaning. The reason is that we are all voters.
-Voters make choices based on their political persuasion.
-Political persuasion necessarily makes a journalist too biased to report fairly without deferring to subject matter experts.
-Subject matter experts, one from each side of the debate, must be chosen.
-He said/She said talk-over denials and accusations are the result, which leads to dubious statements by the candidates that require fact-checking.
-Fact-checking turns into a whack-a-mole exercise. Some candidate statements are outright false, some fall into a gray area (hence numbers of pinocchios). Some are important. Others are not.
-Narrative coherence is lost
-Voters are left to their own devices to believe whatever they choose.

Leaks on the other hand provide irrefutable evidence.  (Never mind that tapes and emails could be doctored.) The big surprise is not the story told by the evidence. We all know what DJT is like. The surprise is the sudden emergence of the evidence that makes facing the truth, by the candidate, and especially by prominent supporters, more difficult.

Leaks give the objective journalist permission to report the truth in context - in the case of Trump, to say what he is really like, which we already could infer from all available evidence. Maybe not in a court of law to convict of a crime, but surely to judge fitness to be POTUS.

The fact that leaks are needed to prove what we already know demonstrates that the traditional reporting standards for objective journalism are obsolete.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Fixing a Broken System

At WTBP, we see a broken political system in the U.S. and identify key villains - not the worst actors, but those with good intentions (presumably), but lacking in the will to act to effect change. Taking the existing political structure of the U.S. as a given, we find that (1) moderate Republicans who remain faithful to their party caucus in Congress -no matter what happens- and (2) the popular mainstream press who stick to the broken "balanced" model are the two main culprits. Applying pressure to
(1) and(2) to change their ways represents the path of least resistance to meaningful reform.

Making institutional reform happen is difficult because a gridlocked legislature is not likely to reform itself. A minority party that benefits from outsized power and even control of Congress is not likely to seek democratic reforms. These challenges have prompted interest in remedies that do not require monumental laws that may never be passed.

In recent years, interest in electoral reforms has surged. Unfortunately, some creative proposals seem to be driven more by what can be done rather than what needs to be done.

The Center for Election Science (CES) does just that. The CES sees the main problem as the voting method, specifically, voter preference can only be expressed by selecting a single candidate. The CES proposed solution is "approval voting", that is, the voter can pull the lever for all candidates the voter likes. CES invokes year 2000 for their example. The result would be that Nader voters would have exercised two votes in many cases - one for Nader, their "honest favorite" and one for Gore, to register the preference of Gore over Bush. Year 2000 is not a great example of a fix, because Nader had such a small following.Any vote for Nader was clearly a protest vote or a mistake brought about by confusion over the butterfly ballot. People have to get used to the idea that when you vote you do it to affect the outcome of an election. If you are trying to feel good, there are plenty of other avenues.

California has an intriguing Top-Two Primary System for most offices.  The primary field is reduced by vote to two candidates regardless of party. This is worth exploring in other States that do not have it. California also operates an independent redistricting commission to eliminate gerrymandering. The solution to gerrymandering is not simple. The math behind voter preference and drawing legislative districts show us that solving some problems with any system creates others. (re: social choice see Arrow's Impossibility Theorem and Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem.)

The neuroscientist Sam Wang has developed a beta tool to statistically test for partisan gerrymandering.

The California efforts and the objective tool to measure extent of partisanship in creating districts show promise. But the CES proposals would require enormous effort to enact, and do not directly or realistically combat the problems with our democratic system.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

Float Like a Butterfly

Mike Pence's explanation of Donald Trump's stated positions goes like this:
Trump said A.
Kain says Trump said A.
Pence says Trump did not say A, but even if he did, he is unpolished. He did not mean it, but if he did mean it, he does not mean it anymore, not really.
But, Sting Like a Bee - You and Hillary are crafty, polished politicians that no one can trust.

Did you catch that pivot - It's Not Me, It's You!
This Deny, Deflect, Confuse, Accuse combination is a frequent tool of Trump/Pence. The move is so rapid that even when the press sees the pivot and focuses on the last punch - the accusation. The roll-right-over press is evolving after the birther insult - Insult the President, Insult the Nation - OK that's fine, but if you dare insult us, the press, we will say, "wait a second, was that possibly a boldfaced lie?"

Mike Pence is effectively claiming that he is not lying even if what he says is untrue, at least in his book, because he is capturing some vague, but essential truth that is not easily expressed. But will the press ever ask - "How can we have a President and Vice President of the U.S. who are so vague? No, of course not, because the question is so vague sounding. The press can only ask whether a candidate is lying or not because truth and falsehood can be rendered in black and white, even when the context is more shades of gray and even when degree matters.

Trump used the "it's not me, it's you" in the first debate, accusing Hillary of a "temperament" which was so surprising that it was met with laughter.

Pence had a ready deflection as a defense for Trump's history of brutal insults. "Hillary does it, too" when she called out about half of Trump supporters "deplorables". Never mind that the 50/50 remark allows plenty of room for anyone who does not want to feel insulted to consider themselves in the better half.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Like Father Like Son

During the late 1970s, 60 Minutes on CBS was in its heyday with an expanding audience in the pre-Internet world, but my father stopped watching out of disgust. At first I did not understand. The 60 minutes crew would investigate an issue, find out who was the bad guy and, on camera, trip up the bad guy in his or her own words. Of course, 60 minutes always won. The designated bad guy often stumbled on camera, caught in his or her own apparent lie. Or, the bad guy's smooth response would be followed immediately by a blanket statement of fact by a 60 minutes correspondent or a hired outside expert for the show, explaining why the statement you heard from the bad guy was false. The power to edit is the power to destroy, and 60 minutes was not afraid to exercise that power. The star prosecutor of 60 minutes in those days was Mike Wallace, who continued on the show until 2006. He became famous for this brand of "gotcha" journalism. So I started to understand something was wrong with this "unbiased" approach.

Another popular correspondent on the show was Ed Bradley, who was to speak at a conference I attended in the late 1990s. The TV show's gotcha tactics had become somewhat controversial by this point and I looked forward to Bradley's explanation and defense of their methods. Bradley's most telling point was that 60 minutes was "trying to tell a story, that's all." This was startling. I thought for sure he would say they were searching for some intrinsic truth, deep understanding, or whatever. In the end, the message was clear. Do not watch 60 minutes as a search for truth. Watch for a great storytelling.

Having seen the mainstream media continue to struggle with their appropriate role when reporting on politics over the past three decades, the takeaway is clear. They are great storytellers. That is their role.

Ironically, one of the key media moments of the current campaign was the exchange between Chris Wallace, Mike's son, and Hillary Clinton regarding the Comey report and Comey testimony before Congress. Anyone watching his prey backed into a corner would have to agree - Dad would be proud.

No Penalty for Insincerity

The strong commitment of the Republican Party leadership to obstruction in the Congress requires the use of insincere posturing as a tactic.
1. Insincerity can be used to cloud an issue by avoiding serious consideration of pros and cons or the shortcomings of a bill.
2. Insincere posturing and vagueness can be used as a tool to thwart meaningful discussion and possible compromise on legislation. If a reporter askes a question and the answer is "We blame Obama", that pretty much ends further questioning.

The result is often one-off criticism of the insincerety tactic without adequate consideration of the underlying legislative issue.

For example, McConnell complained last week, without apparent irony,  that the President should have worked more with the Congress on problems with the 9/11 bill. Thanks, Obama.
So both houses of Congress pass a bill, the President vetoes the bill and warns the Congress of the shortcomings in the bill. The Congress overrides the President's veto anyway, and the next day the Senate Majority Leader complains about the President not being cooperative. The real meaning of the complaint was the the SML found himself in an awkward position on a legislative issue and wanted to deflect criticism to his opponents. That happens all the time, but it's especially troubling in the context of ceaseless Congressional votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and lack of interest of the Republican leadership on any legislative agenda.

One Hand Clapping

The sound you hear of one hand clapping is back slapping. The NYT does this today, congratulating themselves on the "scoop" that comes with receiving a snail mail containing copies of the first page of three tax returns from 1995. You can already imagine the deliberations of the Pulitzer Prize jury - the news people pleasure awarding themselves is only exceeded by Hollywood.

In their latest podcast the NYT drags out the story of receiving the the three pages, called a "bombshell", wondering about the authenticity, bringing in tax experts and the accountant who prepared the 1990s era Trump returns in the most dramatic tones to verify the authenticity of the documents.
But the only dramatic information in the documents is the $916 million figure which we already knew. WaPo provides the legitimate treatment in How Donald Trump and other real estate developers pay almost nothing in taxes. That is the real story - the context. Not "in context", but the context itself. No one in Donald Trump's situation as a real estate developer would be expected to pay much, if anything in taxes. That is more a story about us - the nation and its tax laws - than him, Donald Trump. Unfortunately, reporting in context can only occur on the so-called WaPo Wonkblog, a title that conjures up an image - fasten your seatbelts, average intelligence necessary for the remainder of the flight.

Reporters, even political reporters, are expert storytellers. They need to bring in the subject matter experts when they have leaked documents. But we already knew all of the key elements of the story:
1. Trump has consistently bragged about making maximum use of the tax laws and bankruptcy laws to his personal financial advantage.
2. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 lowered marginal tax rates as it closed many tax loopholes, but advantages that especially benefit real estate investors were preserved.
3. The $900 million loss figures for Trump due to bankruptcies were floating around in the 1990s, as noted by today's WaPo story.
So it is no surprise if Trump's accountants and tax lawyers were able to finagle a tax saving windfall in the neighborhood of $900 million.

Is it news when the media uses leaked documents to tell us what we already knew?

The headline that "Trump could have paid no taxes for 18 years" could have been written without the "bombshell" disclosure based on the public information without the leaked documents.

In their self-congratulations, the NYT compares the "whistleblower" who leaked the three pages to the whistleblower who leaked the Brown and Williamson internal documents that exposed the tobacco industry years-long campaign to discredit the fact that smoking causes cancer. Hubris anyone? That was a different situation - a matter of potential civil and criminal liability to the tune of many billions of dollars and  a smoking gun that led to smoking policy changes throughout society.

The only question about Trump is whether or not one decides to vote for him based on
(1) the preponderance of the evidence or
(2) the preponderance of the evidence, plus a few tax pages that support the preponderance of the evidence.

So why does this matter? This "revelation" shines a bright light on the other side of the defective "fair and balanced" coin.

At NYT, the storytellers see their job as telling the truth, usually without meaningful interpretation, based on the position that interpretation is a red flag of possible bias. Reporters are led wherever the "facts" take them, which, in politics means, facts or allegations supplied by whichever campaign is most aggressive with accusations about the opposing candidate, as supplemented by whichever news source is most aggressive with their accusations and innuendo, which happens to be Fox News.
As a result, the "bombshell" of the tax form leak is not the revelation about Trump's taxes. It is the permission the NYT needed to remove their "fair and balanced" blinders to report more fully on a story we already knew.

As a profession, the prominent press needs to step back and question a system that relies so heavily on leaks. With the possible exception of Watergate, for the list of leaks below, we probably already understood the backstory pretty well - the reality - but the press used the leak-event as a pretext to treat the reality as fact without shedding their appearance of objectivity.

The Pentagon Papers (Daniel Ellsberg)
Watergate  (Mark Felt)
George Bush National Guard Story (fake source)
State Department documents (Manning)
Romney 47% remark (Carter grandson)
NSA documents (Snowden)
DNC emails (Russian hackers)

The NYT loves leaks to their news department because they have difficulty working with abstract ideas and need a concrete document for the story to coalesce around. Suppose the heart of the story is that Donald Trump is an extremely selfish, extremely narcissistic man. If so, we do not need three pages of 1995 tax documents to understand that reality.