Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Years Resolutions

It's that time of year. Dismal failures of the reality based journalists in 2016 were followed by improvements in 2017. But the first year of a presidential administration always signals a shift by the mainstream press - from election year forced balance (aka false balance/false equivalence) to speaking truth to power. So whether or not lessons have been learned remains to be seen (as they were once fond of saying) in 2018, an election year for Congress.

Jared Bernstein has his own presciptives in the realm of economics and tax policy in "A New Year’s resolution for the media: Do not let Republicans get away with saying ‘reforms’ when they mean ‘cuts’"

In my italics, some of Bernstein's peeves:
From Congressional Quarterly, "In describing Ryan’s agenda, the piece noted ([Bernstein's] bold, in all cases below) that “the Wisconsin Republican has detailed an ambitious effort to dramatically reshape Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs that the GOP has long targeted as ripe for reforms. … Ryan has said he plans to use the budget reconciliation process for entitlement changes."

Bernstein also calls out CNN reporting on "entitlement reform" and Politico's references to "Ryan’s “obsession” with “fixing” the “ballooning entitlement state” and “tinkering with the social safety net.” Bernstein notes "Who could possibly be against “fixing” something!"


I would ask the reality based media to resist as much as possible two related tendencies:
1. Forced balance, and
2. He said/She said

The NYT is especially guilty of forcing balance in straight news pieces, much more than the WaPo, even though both claim the mantle of objective journalism. Forced balance is now often being called "whataboutism", which, as a term, better captures the irrelevancy of the comparison being made.
This forced balance or whataboutism was not always with us. For those of us who recall the Carter administration, there was widespread criticism, but few if any comparisons with the administrations of Ford, Nixon, or Eisenhower. (The unwritten rule of forced balance is that any criticism of the president/candidate of one party requires as a matter of fairness, comparison/contrast with recent president/candidate of the other party in the entrenched two party system. And, according to rule, you go back as far as necessary for the most apt comparison. For Trump, you first try Obama, and if that does not work, you skip over Bush and try Clinton. That gives you 16 years to work with, so a hit is almost guaranteed.

Forced balance in reporting on Trump should become easier as more time elapses. Avoiding false balance just means trying to report on Trump administration actions and policy without comparing and contrasting with the previous Democratic administrations and, in particular, without comparing with HRC who has not held a public policy post for years.

By way of example, suppose Trump shot his wife with a revolver. Would the New York Times report, "For the first time, a sitting President appears to have shot his wife, according to eyewitness reports of Secret Service agents, though, early in the Clinton administration, Hillary Clinton was accused by Republican critics of complicity in the death of Vince Foster which was ruled a suicide by authorities."

So just stop doing that NYT. OK?

And stop reporting straight news as always a "he said/she said" story by avoiding phrases like "Democratic critics claim..." when telling the other side of the story. As an example, the Trump administration has come under harsh criticism from many traditional Republican stalwarts (though few officeholders) , so isolating counterarguments to Trump administration statements and justifications for their actions to so-called "Democratic critics" is false and misleading.

As put forward on many occasions on this blog, unlike the sciences, where reporters are usually not scientists, reporters on politics generally need to be subject matter experts. So they have their own interpretation of the facts which is not necessarily skewed false by their political preferences if they are true to their craft.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Not a Populist...Not a Populist

In "The biggest surprise of Trump's first year is his hard-right economic policy" Vox's Matthew Yglesias shows that he just does not get it.

Yglesias argument goes something like this.

1. Trump constantly lies as president just as he lied throughout his campaign.
2. Much of his othere awful behavior, like the lying, has continued while he is president.
3. But he was a populist who promised to implement populist policies as president.
4. Despite the promises, Trump has been governing as a hard right conservative, not a true populist.

Yglesias calls this behavior surprising.

Where to begin?

First of all, if, during a political campaign, a candidate lies all the time and makes policy promises - maybe, just maybe, those policy promises are lies, too.

Any thoughtful analysis of Trump must recognize his deeply narcissistic personality disorder. The truth means nothing to him. Everything he says is geared totally toward maximization of self advantage. There is literally no such thing as the truth as the rest of us understand it. For a narcissist who is a constant liar, campaign promises, after the election, become mere statements made in the past. There is no day of reckoning because when reckoning would come for a mere mortal, the challenge from the fact checkers only requires a new lie, a new denial or accusation, a deflection, or all of the above. Every statement is made in the moment as a way to get to the next day. There is no looking back to the past. There is no looking forward to the future.

So, during the campaign, when the demand comes for release of tax returns, the narcissist just says - "I am under audit and can not release the returns." When pressed, hejust says - "I have answered that question. I don't talk about that anymore. " The statements make no sense, but they achieve the purpose of deflection.

Yglesias continues: "But what’s flown under the radar is that there is plenty surprising about Trump’s conduct in office. In particular, on economic issues he’s governed a lot more like a hard-right conservative than a freewheeling populist."

But that was never a surprise. It was to be expected. In important ways, Trump was a perfect fit for the Republican controlled Congress. Trump cares only about personal financial gain and dominance of others. Campaign promises were made as a matter of convenience, telling supporters what they wanted to hear in the moment, with no concern for the future. That left the Republicans in Congress free to craft any legislation they wanted which Trump would sign into law. Every new law can be declared a success by Trump, no matter the impact. For him, that was winning.

And it remains to be seen whether Trump's adherence to Republican policy prescriptives translates into continued low approval, or if,  as Yglesias' puts it -  "The combination of graft and plutocracy" is "a huge political loser". Yglesias' makes a strong case that the Trump administration policies are anti-populist", but this was never a surprise. And Yglesias provides no compelling argument that the anti-populist policies will matter to Trump's base of support.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Inaccurate and Unfair, but Trying

In "F.B.I. Director Wants to Moves Forward, but the President is Making His Job Harder", the NYT again reminds us that their journalistic standards have been stretched beyond their limits by Trumpism.

The NYT in their news coverage needs to confine the news to reporting of what is happening as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, the NYT tries to give all news makers the benefit of the doubt that they are eminently reasonable people whose motives must be taken as face value to coincide with their stated purpose. For the NYT, you can only question the statements of Trump or other politicians by subjecting those statements to "fact checking". But we can never know for sure what another person is thinking or feeling. So, as a reporting shortcut and a way to bend over backwards to be "fair", the NYT accepts statements and actions by politicians in the most favorable light possible.

The story begins with

"WASHINGTON — When President Trump tapped Christopher A. Wray to be his next F.B.I. director, it signaled a clear break from the tenure of James B. Comey, whom Mr. Trump had grown to distrust and eventually fired."

That statement, taken without context that we all know so well, is, on its face, completely absurd. What exactly was so bad about the tenure of Comey that required a "clear break"? Integrity comes to mind as the most likely problem. And "Mr. Trump had grown to distrust..." implies some reason the so-called "Mr." Trump would have good reason to lose confidence in Comey, other than the simple reason that Comey's team of investigators was closing in on the Trump team, especially Flynn and Manafort at that time. So this NYT news piece begins poorly by granting way too much benefit of the doubt to Trump.

It gets worse.

"It seemed Mr. Trump would let his handpicked F.B.I. director do his work unimpeded, giving Mr. Wray some breathing room. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity,” the president said in June."

This is more cutting corners and benefit of the doubt - what Steve Schmidt refers to as not starting fresh every Monday morning with Trump as if the previous week (and all prior weeks) had never happened and writing as if he is a perfectly reasonable person who can never be trusted by anyone.

If we try to make the Times statement accurate with as few changes as possible, the sentence would need to read as follows:

"If Mr. Trump was a reasonable person and not a constant liar, it would have seemed Mr. Trump would let his handpicked F.B.I. director do his work unimpeded, giving Mr. Wray some breathing room. “I know that he will again serve his country as a fierce guardian of the law and model of integrity,” the president said in June."

Or something along those lines, acknowledging Trump's pathological behavior. But that kind of nod to reality bumps up against the NYT journalistic standard that any description that is or could be construed as negative about a person has to be treated as "opinion" which can only appear in the Opinion section or, in some circumstances, the NYT Magazine or, with certain restrictions, in Business or Media or similar sections.

That leaves the News articles with an artificially imposed requirement to sacrifice accuracy in the interest of "balance" in order to maintain an appearance of "fairness" with the result being inaccuracy and unfairness. The remainder of the article strikes a tone of appearances being important for Mr. Wray.  He supposedly needs to maintain appearances so that FBI rank and file agents due not lose morale while Mr. Trump wants agents who were promoted by Director Comey - (remember, the man who lost Mr. Trump's trust for reasons unspecified in the piece.

And that's too bad because today we learned that McCabe is indeed going to retire. Baker has been reassigned. And Comey was fired. So the dismantling of the FBI is well underway while the Times puts the focus on appearances.

Public trust will suffer, but public trust is not something Trump has ever cared about.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Doubling Down on Lies

David Leonhardt doubled down this week on the principle of false balance coupled with the technique of counting lies (instead of evaluating lies) as an analytical tool.

The original NYT list of "Trump's Lies" appeared as a June 23, 2017. 'opinion' piece -- even though the determination of whether a statement is true or false and, if false, is therefore a lie is arguably an objective exercise. Certainly, in this case, the author is at least implicitly claiming objectivity by proceeding with the lie count. The original piece openly asked for input from readers regarding appropriate next steps. Our Counting Lies post criticized the effort on two counts:

1) Evaluation of Trump's lies has nothing to do with presidents Bush or Obama. Going down that rabbit hole distracts from important issues and, but once again using balance as the yardstick for evaluation, automatically leans toward normalization of Trump and improves the chances that false equivalence of Trump with others will rule the day.

2) A better analysis would categorize the lies by their apparent nature and quality. The NYT is a group of slow learners. In September 2016, the NYT referred to Trump as "mischievous" even while asserting that they would finally start calling a lie a lie.

Despite the flaws in the NYT approach to objectively describing Trump's extreme behavior, Leonhardt has updated the list of lies by comparisons with Obama in "Trump's Lies vs. Obama." Though the list he compiles clearly ranks Trump with a high lie count compared with the count they compile for Obama, proceeding with this exercise is particularly troubling.

First of all, this exercise was a response to Trump supporters who "didn’t doubt that he[Trump] sometimes bent the truth. But they thought he was no worse than other recent presidents, and they challenged The Times to do the same exercise for a president other than Trump."

But is there any doubt that Trump supporters who believe that Trump's lies are few and innocent will be moved by such an exercise? Of course not. They will either ignore it or look for one or two real or perceived flaws in Leonhardt's Obama lie count and use that "finding" as a cudgel to reject the entire exercise as "biased" in favor of Obama. But the goal of distracting from useful evaluation of Trump's fundamental mendacity will have been achieved by those Trump supporters. Leonhardt does not even seem aware that this Trump supporters criticism fits into the Deny/Distract/Deflect/Accuse framework (see Birtherism as a Service or All Tactics All the Time) recently highlighted by John Oliver as "whataboutism".

Additional thoughts:

To David Leonhardt - why not tell the Trump supporters to ask Fox News to count up the Obama lies if they are so interested in them. My guess is that Fox would not do it because that is not how they plan  this game. Fox News identifies a "fact" that motivates strong emotions of hate and fear of liberals and countervailing "facts" to motivate feelings of patriotism  and loyalty to conservatives.

What if Trump were the first president and lied all the time?  For lack of predecessors, would you compare him to King George? Or would you wish there had been other presidents for purposes of comparison because you would have no idea how to assess whether or not his constant lies is a serious concern?

Sorry, but Obama appeared at all times to be a president who was sincere and spoke at length pointing to facts in support of his statements. If his statements did not hold up, then he was in a good position to make corrections and generally did. Anyone who could not see that will not be moved. He was also disadvantaged by a relentless unfair series of attacks on his character. Fortunately, his character was so solid that those attacks were ultimately ineffective. Trump, on the other hand, has a long history of only thinking of himself and acting on his own behalf, and, as Steve Schmidt has been saying, "Trump lies 100% of the time."

About Doubt

"Doubting the Intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked" reads the headline this week in WaPo. But does he doubt the intelligence, or reject the intelligence? The text of the article does not mince words quite like the headline, going on to state that - "Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House."

So if he indeed rejects the intelligence, the question is why. Is it a healthy skepticism? Is he a spy?
The thought that the POTUS is an agent of a foreign power is such an extreme idea that, even if all of the evidence pointed in that direction, our responsible journalists in their everyday reporting bend over backwards to present alternative theories with equal weight.
Three Amigos courtesy
Now the main thrust of the article is clear as it states "The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government." So whatever the reason for the actions of the president, the article highlights the clear threat to national security of a president who refuses to hold a hostile foreign power accountable for their direct actions against the U.S.

This piece comes at an important time with Republicans in the House challenging the reliability of the FBI and the Mueller investigation.  U.S. foreign policy tilts heavily in favor of Russia and other dictatorships and away from nations allied with the U.S. in the decades before 2017.

But when it comes to the possible culpability of the president, instead of offering the simplest explanation for his actions, the WaPo piece scales back from a common sense conclustion to an ostensibly plausible (but really implausible) explanation. "White House officials cast the president’s refusal to acknowledge Russian interference in the election as an understandably human reaction."

The article unearths a series of encounters between and among senior government officials, which does shed light on how the Trump position on Russia has played out throughout 2017.

And WaPo notes "Trump has never explained why he so frequently seems to side with Putin.
To critics, the answer is assumed to exist in the unproven allegations of coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, or the claim that Putin has some compromising information about the American president. Aides attribute Trump’s affection for Putin to the president’s tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy and his unshakable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

That "To critics.." statement is the weakest point of the piece. As a hard news article, editorial policy of WaPo dictates that any interpretation of events that would constitute a reasonable best guess, but would appear highly accusatory must be consigned to the 'he said/she said' bin of logical discourse, the "on the one hand yes, but on the other hand, no."  The 'we report the facts, but we have no interpretation.'

So the most important point - is the president a spy? a money launderer? an agent of a foreign power? is shunted aside to an evenhanded tug between "unproven allegations" and "the president's tendency to personalize matters of foreign policy" as well as a never explained and vague "unshakeable belief that his bond with Putin is the key to fixing world problems."

The problem with this approach is what Republican political strategist Steve Schmidt calls, to paraphrase, starting fresh every Monday morning with Trump as if we know nothing about him, as if we only have the claims made by two equal and opposite sides, even though this president "lies 100% of the time." as Schmidt has said many times.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine is one of the few observers who picks up on the significance of this reporting flaw in "Advisers Afraid to Bring Up Russian Hacking Around Trump Because It Triggers Him". Chait states that the WaPo article reports "in devastating detail" about the short tempered president, while pointing out "And yet, as humiliating as the treatment of the president’s fragile psyche may be, in its most important aspects, the account is exculpatory. "

The problem with the WaPo piece that quotes top aides about Trump's "frustration" because "he believes he is innocent" is that, as Chait says - "This is a perfectly sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of a normal person. But it is not a sensible frame for analyzing the thinking and behavior of Donald Trump." Chait ends with the simple statement - "But it’s quite possible his hair-trigger anger over the subject of Russia is a tactic designed to close off a subject on which his guilt runs very deep."

And so the frame of the WaPo report is a flawed frame that exists due to the use of outmoded standards for 'objective' reporting, but which are not accurate. Avoiding the obvious explanation for Trump's behavior because it makes him look guilty, guilty, guilty results in distorted presentation of the story. One could read the WaPo piece and reasonably conclude - No wonder Trump becomes furious! He knows he is innocent after all. What could be more frustrating. Sure, let's shut down that infuriating Mueller investigation at once would be a reasonable takeaway from the WaPo piece.

Political journalists interested in accuracy need to center every news story on the frame most likely to be accurate, then point out the areas of possible doubt - not the frame that assembles the facts that are most easily proven and combines these with speculation, such as second hand witness accounts of alleged state of mind - as if anyone truly knows another person's true state of mind.

At the very least, WaPo and other news organizations need to face the reality that when they report accounts of state of mind or feeling, they are presenting opinions as facts, which jeopardizes the accuracy of their reporting. That correction would be a small step to improve reporting.

But the more important red flag in the article is the "To critics.." statement noted above. Each time a news reporter tries to boil down the facts to an argument between equal and opposite 'sides', they need to recognize that that is an improper frame. Their knee jerk tendency to do this is the reason we are in this mess today.

In fact, by this standard, perhaps WaPo news articles should note "To critics, the Washington Post is so-called 'fake news' that says whatever Jeff Bezos tells them to say..."

Monday, December 4, 2017

When Balance Is Unfair and Unreasonable

In Why a Lot of Important Research Is Not Being Done, Aaron Carroll presents a compelling case that industry groups and individual companies have been using the courts for decades as a tool to intimidate researchers whose findings threaten their revenue streams. His detailed examples of this chilling effect include the lead industry, gun manufacturers, surgeons who treat back pain, and manufacturers of dietary supplements.

But in a last paragraph nod to balance typical of pieces in the New York Times, Dr. Carroll notes that  "Lawsuits like these aren’t necessarily bound by ideology or partisan politics." citing the suit by Mark Jacobsen, has filed against "the National Academy of Sciences and the authors of a recent paper published in the academy’s journal, PNAS. The paper criticized Mr. Jacobson’s analyses that the United States could fully power itself with wind, water and solar energy. Many, including some identified as environmentalists, have criticized the lawsuit."

Now, in terms of simple logic, a single example of one "side" in contrast to many examples on the other "side", instead of supporting the proposition that "both sides do it" equally,  actually argues in favor of the proposition that both sides don't do it in equal measure. And, if it is worth mentioning at all, then the reader must wonder -
1) Is this just an example of a fragile ego prompting a lawsuit? Or,
2) Is there industry interference on one side (fossil fuels) or the other side (wind, solar, water)?

My own guess is that the boldness of Jacobsen's 100% renewables claim prompted healthy skepticism among academic researchers. But the Times article does not provide enough information for the reader to judge. And that's the problem. In the Times, the editor is biased in favor of any statement that suggests "balance" between two equal and opposite sides, which is accepted as a truism. Accepting balance in all situations regardless of the underlying facts without further examination meets the Times definition of objectivity.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

When Both Sides Don't Do It

David Leonhardt has an interesting piece in NYT with a proper focus on Republican party tactics to advance the proposed tax legislation: The Four Big Tax Deceptions

1. Describe the benefits of a different tax plan and make it sound as if they are talking about this one. I would lump this tactic together with calling the proposal "tax reform" as if it somehow goes beyond tax cuts aimed at the wealthy, which is in sharp contrast to the 1986 Tax Reform Act which broadened the tax base by closing many loopholes that had evolved over the years while lowering the top tax rates on individuals.

2. Talk about the plan's middle class tax cuts - and ignore the middle class tax increases

3. Pretend that the future will never arrive. Krugman in "The Biggest Tax Scam in History" (along with others) puts this a little more accurately. Make two arguments, each of which can be true in a given context, but both of which can not be simultaneously true: "Here’s how it works: If you point out that the bill hugely favors the wealthy at the expense of ordinary families, Republicans will point to the next few years, when the class-war nature of the plan is obscured by those temporary tax breaks — and claim that whatever the language of the law says, those tax breaks will actually be made permanent by later Congresses.

But if you point out that the bill is fiscally irresponsible, they’ll say that it “only” raises the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade and doesn’t raise deficits at all after that — because, you see, those tax breaks will expire by 2027, so the tax hikes will raise a lot of revenue."

4. Rush, rush, rush. This one is a big a red flag. Rush, rush, rush before anyone has time to notice and better understand your tactics in 1, 2 and 3 above. Of course, rush, rush, rush was the tactic of choice used for the push to repeal the ACA.

What all this adds up to is the "Silver Bullet" approach to government.  Do whatever you want and make any claim that supports your desired action, whether or not true so long as the claim you make is the claim which, if true, would or might support your action. And, whether or not true, may not be relevant, but if irrelevant, would crowd out meaningful consideration of relevant policy details.

Is it any wonder that the Republican president lies all the time?

The Silver Bullet is also used in electoral campaigns including the permanent campaign pursued by the Trump administration. So the president argued in the campaign that he could not release his tax returns because he was under audit. That was a patently false statement, but it was a statement. The fact of the audit was irrelevant. He did not provide additional detail which would have been refutable. End of discussion. Mission accomplished.

So a visit by the few surviving Navajo code talkers is used as a campaign event to insult those White House guests with a "Pocohantas" jab, ostensibly aimed at Warren, but really used as a deflection. Funny how these moments so often involve people of color.

The Leonhardt piece ends with a mention of the failed Roy Moore scam targeted as the Washington Post. Suppose the scammer had been able to obtain video footage of the meeting with WaPo that could be sliced to place Wapo in a damaging light, whether or not fairly. That footage would be the Silver Bullet discrediting the Post, even though that particular footage would still be irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of Roy Moore of the charges brought by his accusers to date. Logical fallacies are of no concern to this crew and, no, both sides don't do it. Not like this. [Late update: the post-truth scammer doctored - whoops, I mean heavily edited - the tapes per Wapo here.]

An interesting sidebar to all this is the number of staunch Republicans -pundits and former officeholders - who find the current administration completely abhorrent. To name a few -  George Will, Steve Schmidt, Bruce Bartlett, Joe Scarborough, Mary Matalin, and many others. There is literally no precedent to the level of distress among party loyalists to an administration of their own party. In the decades preceding the electoral success of Trump, the Republican strategy consisted of saying almost anything and using hardball tactics during election campaigns, but pivoting to a softer tone while in office even while employing three-card-monte tactics now and then. An example would be the GW Bush 2001 Commission to Strengthen Social Security with members drawn from both parties, but which was stacked with advocates of private accounts.

When Tactics Become Policy refers in part to this post-1970 Republican game and the fact that when winning is all that matters, the tactics used to win elections or to win Congressional votes on policy matters inevitably end up distorting those policies, sometimes beyond recognition. In fact, the outcome ends up being a situation that absolutely no one ever wanted.

Unless your name is Vladimir Putin. Or Donald Trump.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Elusive Truth about the Still Amazing 401(k)

Republican proposals to limit pre-tax contributions to employer sponsored 401(k) plans have been short on detail so far and, due in part to the complexity of tax rules, long on misunderstanding.

The annual limit on tax-advantaged contributions to an employer sponsored plan 401(k) (assuming you are under age 50) is $18,000 in 2017. This limit is unlikely to go down as a result of the Republican tax proposal, despite what you may read about a drop to $2,400.

That's because the $18,000 is comprised of two types of contributions - regular pre-tax 401(k) contributions and so-called "Roth" after-tax contributions to a 401(k) plan. Under current law, you decide how much of the $18,000 limit you contribute to regular pre-tax 401(k) and how much you contribute to a Roth 401(k). Many employers have not made the Roth after-tax feature available to their employees, so many people, even financial writers seem to be unaware of it.

The author of this Washington Post article seems to be unaware of the distinction, not even mentioning Roth.

Don't confuse the "Roth" 401(k) that an employer sponsors with the "Roth" IRA that has been around a lot longer. You set up your own Roth IRA, not your employer and the dollar limit on contributions to a Roth IRA is only $5,500.

So, back to the tax proposal - it's really just a matter of Uncle Sam saying "Pay me now or pay me later."

There are important differences, which we's get to, but some people will be better off with the change.

If your tax rate when you retire is the same as the tax rate in the year that you saved, then there is no difference between the pre-tax 401(k) and a Roth 401(k).

For example, suppose I want to set aside $1,000 today in a pre-tax 401(k) account that earns interest for 15 years at 6% per year and my tax rate is 20%. My $1,000 account would grow to $2,400. After paying taxes of $480,  I would have $1,920 left to spend after withdrawal.

Now suppose instead that instead of putting all of that $1,000 in a regular pre-tax 401(k), I pay taxes at 20% today on that $1,000 which leaves me with $800 after taxes to put in a Roth. What happens? You guessed it - the $800 in the Roth account grows at the same 6% per year to $1,920 which is tax free.

For a lot of people, the Republican tax proposal has no impact on retirement saving!

But the real story is more complicated.

If you expect your tax rates to be lower in retirement, then you are better off in the pre-tax 401(k), not the Roth. If tax rates increase for everybody due to future tax law changes, then now is a good time to save more in the Roth.

And there is one more impact no one seems to talk about. Those who are financially well off and  looking for an upper hand on taxes are better off with the Roth. Why? Suppose a wealthy individual is in a 35% tax bracket both  this year and in retirement and saves $18,000 in a pretax 401(k) account that grows to $100,000 at retirement, is withdrawn and taxed at 35%, leaving $65,000 in spending money.

That same person could set aside $27,700 of salary today by paying taxes of $9,700 (35% of $27,700) and put the remaining $18,000 in a Roth 401(k) that grows to $100,000 at retirement in the same year as the previous example - but pay no taxes on the $100,000!

So, for anyone who is hitting the tax law limits on saving, changing to a Roth contribution has the same impact as increasing the tax law limits.

None of this highly technical analysis touches on the real life impact that could discourage saving by lower paid workers if this $2,400 limit is made law. But that story is more complicated than it sounds. Most 401(k) plans have automatic enrollment features these days. Low paid employees contributing by automatic enrollment to a 401(k) are not likely to change their minds and take action to stop making Roth contributions. And they might even end up contributing more effectively for retirement if they have saved the same dollar amount after tax that they would have pre-tax, but their Roth account is not taxed when it is withdrawn at retirement.

That's the story from the worker's perspective. If you are well off, this change is not necessarily bad. If you are low paid, it's probably not bad because automatic enrollment will keep you saving for retirement. But from the perspective of the country, this proposal increases tax revenues today by removing future sources of  tax revenue.  This is yet another Republican tax policy slight of hand - eliminate the estate tax and reduce corporate taxes, offset those tax revenue reductions with a measure that increases current tax receipts, but blow up the deficit in the future. Let's forget about tomorrow cuz tomorrow never comes.

Ironically, DJT may have been told something about the 401(k) proposal that prompted the Oct. 23 tweet
"There will be NO change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!"

As tweets go, that may not be far off the mark. But we will never know, will we?

The Party of Lincoln is Now the Party of Trump

Thomas Edsall has thoughtful piece "The Party of Lincoln is Now the Party of Trump" in the NYT today about the extent to which the Republican Party of today is losing its moorings. But his argument fall short in one important sense.

As I comment in the NYT editor's picks:

"The statement that 'Democrats are hardly exempt from tribalism' misses the larger point. No prominent Republican has stepped forward to repudiate Trump unless they are a former officeholder, current officeholder who has decided not to run for re-election, or member of the conservative pundit class. If you are a Republican Senator or Representative who is not running for reelection, then you are not a "GOP pol who stands up to Trump", Nolan McCarty and Ryan Enos notwithstanding. Standing up means putting yourself on the line."

Unfortunately, waiting for a Republican officeholder in the Senate or House to step forward feels like a doomed exercise. The fact that no one has taken this step is evidence of a consensus political calculation - that there is only downside to being the first and potentially only Republican to take such a risk.

From Bush to Trump to What?

As noted previously here and by others, Trump is not an aberration. The Trump phenomenon is the result of a natural progression of corrosive Republican party tactic over recent decades. The Bushes in particular embraced extreme tactics in political campaigns. George H.W. Bush was expert at the pivot from divisive campaign tactics to more normal behavior as president. George W. Bush carried tactical politics to an extreme in both campaigns and governing. Rich Benjamin has a pretty good rundown in the allotted space today in WaPo: George W. Bush is not part of the Resistance. He's part of what brought us Trump.

Benjamin's piece is mostly spot on, but the ending is a bit off; "Americans may like to forget history. But this year is showing us in real time that we are, indeed, doomed to repeat it."

Actually, we are not repeating history. We are experiencing the natural progression of history that happens when tactics employed to win become more important than any other consideration - like survival of the republic.

The Trump phenomenon is more extreme than the Bush phenomenon ever was. Anything bad about Bush is taken to a never-before experienced extreme with Trump. With Trump, literally no one knows where this goes. If the current Republican Congress continues to support Trump, everything has to get worse before it gets better.

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Will They Ever Learn

The New York Times continues to perpetuate the myth that the search for truth requires a balancing of a so-called right, a so-called left, and a center that is somehow between those two poles. No wonder we are so "polarized".

The NYT, always above the fray that envelops the rest of us poor folks, has a recent installment of their We report on Right, Left, Center - You Decide (my words, not theirs) on the Right and Left React to Trump's Condolence Call Controversy. 

But the question from the press in the Rose Garden a few days ago was not - "Why haven't you called the families?". The question was "Why haven't we heard anything from you so far about the Soldiers that were killed in Niger? And what do you have to say about that?" It was the president who chose to place this in a context of condolences, invoking Obama,  that presses the hot buttons of the military families, which conveniently diverted away from sensitive issues of his policies and military tactics to execute those policies.

For example, most people had no idea we have ongoing military operations in that part of the world. As we learn about this special forces operation, the soldiers were leaving a meeting and the ambush seems to have been a trap, so they may have been betrayed.

What does that say about intelligence in that part of the world? 

We know that Chad announced an end to cooperation with the U.S. military in the fight against Boko Haram immediately following Chad being placed on the list of countries subject to the Trump administration travel ban. And that move against Chad seems to have been based on Chad missing the deadline for submission of passport documents to the U.S. for a security review.

How does that make us feel about the use of military contractors?

How does that make us feel about an arbitrary travel ban and other arbitrary decisions?

Many valid questions remain about the circumstances of the final hours and death of Sgt. La David Johnson,  the role played by government contractors and French forces. All of these factors call for serious discussion of policy. Instead, we find ourselves drawn to the basically irrelevant hot button issue of appropriateness of condolences and appropriateness of discussion of appropriateness of condolences. On that terrain, serious debate about policy can not survive. It can not even exist. And that's the goal of  DJT. Trump's instinct to sidetrack serious debate about policy wins the day yet again.

Had this been the Democrats, we know what would have happened because it did happen.

Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.

The New York Times editors with their right/left/center balance are still clueless about context. Just like during the campaign of 2016 and just as he has done all this year, Trump defines the subject to be debated. The story becomes what he says when the story should be about what he is doing. Trump instinctively kicks the story to campaign mode, but he is the president and the press needs to cover the actions and inactions of his campaign, not the daily bob and weave of tweets and invocation of Obama and Clinton, neither of whom is in government.

Trump controls the news cycle, moving it from the NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to the condolences for fallen soldiers. Once again, Trump wins by diverting attention.

When will the New York Times ever learn?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Janet Yellen Really?

President Trump is scheduled to meet today to interview Janet Yellen for renomination as Chair of the Federal Reserve. Article after article about the five leading candidates treats Yellen as a viable nominee, including the New York Times treatment "The Economy is Humming, But That May Not Win Janet Yellen Another Term" . That piece looks at pros and cons Trump may be considering. "Presidents in recent decades have generally decided to reappoint Fed chairmen, even from the opposing political party, on the theory that stability would comfort markets." reports the Times, which emphasizes the historical perspective, going back to Volker's chairmanship.
source: dailytelegraph

But Janet Yellen was appointed by one President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2014. Her chance of being nominated by Trump to remain in her post is 0.00% because Trump has signaled clearly in action after action as president that he wants more than anything to undo every action that Obama took while in office.

Yellen's chances are similar to Romney's chances of nomination to a post in the current administration following his visceral denunciation of Trump during the 2016 campaign. Romney had no chance when he met with the president-elect in Trump Tower a year ago. Zilch. Zip. Nada.

The basic irrationality and antagonistic posturing of Trump is intrinsically a key component of his decision making process that should not be ignored by news organizations who continue to pivot to a normalcy perspective on Trump - "No matter what he does, we need to report on every issue as if he might be normal this time, rather than consistent with his prior practice."

This would be a good time to abandon that practice once and for all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Chris Hayes and Hillary Clinton had an interesting moment during yesterday's interview. Hayes asked Clinton whether (to paraphrase) she believed that she lost votes because Trump and Republicans had signaled that they would create scandal after scandal to bring her down as President, so that a vote for Clinton was a vote for endless scandals, even if constant investigations were not merited.

Clinton immediately responded, basically -- No, no. Her example was that Trent Lott vigorously opposed her as a prospective Senator, but after her term in the Senate, admitted that he had found her to be someone he could work with on legislation. So, the argument goes, she would be able to overcome scorched earth tactics.

These two viewpoints are not incompatible. Clinton may well have lost the votes of potential supporters who could not bear the prospect of ginned up 'scandals' throughout her presidency, as we have suggested in This Is Gonna Hurt You More Than It Hurts Me.

Chris Hayes' point may be correct. And Clinton may be correct that the efforts to make her presidency a failure as the primary goal may well have fallen short. But that would not have been for a lack of trying. It could be that after eight years of constant obstruction for obstruction's sake with Obama as president, Republicans in Congress could have been faced with an electorate that eventually caught on to their shenanigans over the next four to eight years. And who knows. The current political environment under Trump may be just what is needed for the Republican political gamesmanship to be recognized for what it is - unless the Republican tactics get lost in scandals of money laundering, collaboration with Russian spy agencies, and blackmail. In that case, Republicans would argue that Trump was an aberration, instead of the apotheosis of Republican strategy in politics over the past three decades.

Becoming Rational

James Hohmann (with Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve) contributes mightily to public dissection of the Trump phenomenon in The Daily 202: Why the divider in chief embraces culture wars.

Finally an article that shines the spotlight on the tools employed by Trump (and other traffickers of logical fallacies.)

"Trump ... has long been a builder of straw men...his chaotic approach to governing also depends on constantly presenting the American people with false binary choices."

Hohmann continues with a description of the recent week of Trump attacks on mostly black NFL players:  "Trump talks about the world in black-and-white terms: You’re either with him or against him."

That is actually two salient points in one sentence. As a black and white thinker, Trump's style appeals to black white thinking - never mind that we live in a world of shades of gray. And Trump has built his own world as dependent on unquestioning loyalty. If you are not loyal, you are fired.

After that, the key points continue to be made in bold:
"He is also looking for distractions." (Distractions divert attention from his incompetence and corruption."
"This is part of a pattern." (No kidding. Of course, this was the pattern last year too, but as a candidate, Trump was judged by mainstream media under the rule that if journalists observe a pattern of misbehavior, they must report using the rules of fair and balance - only the opponent of the candidate can make the observation of a pattern of misbehavior. Otherwise, the journalist is being 'biased'. Which is exactly how Trump got away with the misbehavior by being the more aggressive attacker. Observation of patterns of behavior is an important element of accurate factual reporting in context. Without a journalist's noting the pattern, the context is lost and we are left with competing "facts" in support of alternative narratives and no reliable method to discern truth from fiction.)

"Facing blowback over his false moral equivalency after the violence in Charlottesville, Trump embraced the cause of preserving historical statues." The piece continues with  "Employing the fallacy of the slippery slope, Trump warned that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson statues would come down next if statues to Stonewall Jackson are taken down."

So the authors take two more shots at the irrationality of faulty logic with "false moral equivalency" and the proverbial "slippery slope". If you don't have a credible argument against your opponent's position, argue against the supposed outcome.

"Picking fights with people like Kaepernick is Trump’s modus operandi. He thrives on feuds, and he likes setting up binary contrasts between himself and others." There you have it again - the world in black and white. No shades of gray.

"A similar dynamic was at play when Trump attacked the Broadway musical “Hamilton” last November after the cast read a statement to Mike Pence celebrating diversity"

The piece continues with other great insights and surmises that this could be Trump's  Army vs. McCarthy moment. Maybe, but not likely. For Trump is still controlling the narrative. He shines the spotlight where he wants it and will deflect away from the NFL at a moment's notice. Only when the mainstream media fails to take the bait of the daily tweetstorm will the distractions lose their power. Unfortunately, that result may require dramatic legal action by Mueller and his team.

The Washington Post has done a better job of producing insights on Trump (and Republicans) trafficking in logical fallacies. A significant portion of mainstream outlets, including much (but not all) of the New York Times reporting misses the purely tactical nature of the Trump posture.

One hopes that WaPo and other mainstream outlets will double down on their new rationality so much that whenever a politician says, for example,  "Obamacare is a disaster" (which Republicans use as their go to line about health care reform,) those politicians will be called out on the logical fallacy of invoking a frame --hating Obama -- while evading serious discussion of the issues.

And, more than anything else, we need the next election year to be marked by new journalism that recognizes patterns of behavior and reports on real context - context established by observation of clear patterns of behavior rather than he said/she said reporting without context. The true test for journalists will come when the current mode of speaking truth to power with Republicans having taken over all three branches of government and most state houses is replaced by the rules of campaign reporting.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Old News is New Again

I am always suspicious when new news about an old story that has been beaten to death breaks in the midst of a separate and independent, but related event. Huh? What in the world does that mean?

Well, back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before sensitivity to Cristobal Colombo's slave trading tendencies emerged, the annual Columbus Day celebration seemed to coincide with an amazing new discovery of a previously unknown mariner's map of the New World or some discovery about Leif Erickson. Newspapers would breathlessly report the amazing new find.

In Boston, the costliest art heist ever occurred in the early morning hours after St. Patrick's Day of 1990. The case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner robbery of works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Degas  was never solved. Sure enough, what seems like every year, a sudden and promising break in the investigation occurs around St. Patrick's Day.  Just in time for breathless reportage.

And so it is no surprise, that the breaking story at Fox News shortly after the publication of Hillary Clinton's book about the 2016 campaign is none other than an "exclusive report" on Benghazi.

We do not know who the next Democratic Presidential nominee will be, but as 2020 draws closer, we know that Fox News will feature stories alleging heinous acts committed by that candidate.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Both Sides Over and Over

Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post "This week should put the nail in the coffin for 'both sides' journalism". That theme is echoed in several pieces, including Paul Waldman's "Sorry conservatives. There's no equivalence between the extreme right and the extreme left."

We have written about this problem many times, starting with "Both Sides Do It".

Tragically, someone had to die for more to see this problem and, ironically, the awful real life tragedy in Charlottesville where a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd and fled the scene exactly follows the scenario in Mann and Ornsteins's "It's Even Worse Than It Looks" (emphasis added):

"A balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon is a distortion of reality and a disservice to your consumers. A prominent Washington Post reporter sanctimoniously told us that the Post is dedicated to presenting both sides of the story. In our view, the Post and other important media should report the truth. Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don't treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way. Whats the real story: Who's telling the truth? Who is taking hostages at what risks and to what ends?"

If knee jerk liberalism is bad and knee jerk conservatism is bad, then knee jerk journalism that seeks out balance between two sides, no matter the circumstances in a particular case, is even worse. For both sidesism leads directly to false balance that yields false equivalence noted in "False Equivalence in His Hands". The argument is not that Republicans are bad and Democrats are good. Nor that conservatives are bad and liberals are good. The argument is that adherence to knee jerk journalistic false balance in objective news media creates a loophole that is exploited by conservatives to create false narratives and leads to the successful propagation of fake news, that is, real fake news, in conservative media. In other words, by bending over backwards to maintain an appearance of impartiality, these mostly liberal media outlets have inadvertently made themselves partial, not impartial.

But wait, something else is woefully amiss.  The president of the United States is the one behaving more like a 'both sides' journalist as he talks about "many sides, many sides" and framing for balance "Not Trump. Not Obama" as if he can escape accountability for his entire term by invoking Obama or Clinton at every turn. Of course, his brand of journalism is actually propaganda as he cries out "fake news, fake news." Always willing to take the credit, but never to admit responsibility that could result in taking blame for anything he says or does that has real life consequences.

Trump is the president. He is no longer a candidate, though he likes to pretend with twitter and rallies that he is still a candidate. And he is not a journalist - propagandist or any other type, no matter how much he shouts "fake news, fake news". He has a role to play as the president, but he avoids fulfilling that proper role any time it makes him uncomfortable. He lapses into the role of a candidate, apparently thinking that reality will never catch up to him - the reality that he is accountable. Unfortunately, as a society, we seem able to force accountability only when horrible events occur, like murder or the start of a war of prosecutable crimes by the president. By then it is often too late.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The 'Better Than Ever' Future of the Democrats

Recent articles in politics have suggested that Democrats have failed in their messaging and need to improve. A few weeks ago party leaders rolled out the new slogan "A Better Deal" which was received with much harrumphing. (Democrats Struggle to Sell A Better Deal) But why?

David Leonhardt delved into this issue in Democrats Still Need a Story, asking readers to come up with A Better Slogan. He received 1,200 responses and collected the best ideas: A New Democratic Slogan? Your Choices. And these really do sound like the best ideas as ideas go.

I would argue that all of these "good" ideas are doomed to failure for many of the same reasons that the Candice Bergen character's best idea fell flat in "Starting Over" after her husband divorces her and then takes up with another woman. The performance of the song "Better than Ever" could be played as is at the next Democratic convention (sorry for the darkness):

Democratic strategy fails because it is so difficult for people to understand the thinking of other people who do not reason the way they do.  Rational, analytic thinkers often have difficulty understanding the minds of conservative, intuitive people. The Dems believe that they just need a better message to get through so that voters will focus on policy that will benefit them. But many instinctive people vote based on trust and they trust people who think and talk like they do and mistrust people who do not. These conservatives vote for a person, not a policy outcome. Policy is complicated, but deciding if you like a person is simple.

I think back to the political arguments my late mother had 40 years ago with her father who worked as a member of the Teamsters in the trucking industry before he retired in 1967. She would argue that FDR's policies were responsible for his Social Security which he should appreciate. Without Social Security, he would have negligible retirement income. But he was not voting based on policy or the personal impact on him . He knew who he liked and it was not the Democrats. He liked Jimmy Hoffa despite the meagerness of his own Teamsters pension. And despite Hoffa's obvious corruption. 

Trump brought a slew of new irrational voters back into the political process - people who had given up on hearing candidates who spoke and thought just like they did. And no one is suppressing the ability of these white voters to cast their votes. Republican strategists want these voters to remain engaged and actively voting.

No, the Democrats will never get through to these people with policy arguments, no matter how clever the messaging. 

Democratic strategy needs to focus on fighting voter suppression and inspiring the Democratic base. Maybe a better than ever slogan would be "Vote or Die - It's Up to  You". (Late update. Oops, apparently Vote or Die is already taken. You get the idea.)

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Not So Fast

Many of our pundit class misunderstood the Trump phenomenon - and that confusion continues, at least for those who buy into Matt Latimer's "What If Trump Had Won As a Democrat". Asking that question misses the point - that Trump won as a Republican by taking tried and proven Republican campaign tactics to their logical extreme conclusion. Personal attacks carried to extreme, irrational levels of viciousness. Attacks on the press, including threatening speech aimed at individual reporters at rallies. And lying as a tactic some of the time taken to the extreme of lying with abandon.

Now Latimer's piece may well be a parody, but serves at least a deflection for Republicans who like their party electoral strategy just fine, thank you, and do not see any need for reform, other than to regard Trump as an aberration instead of the epitome that he is.

Jonathan Chait takes down the Latimer arguments, such as they are, in "Could Trump Have Been Elected As a Democrat?" which is accompanied by a fitting photo that implies an equally 'interesting' thought experiment, "could Palin have been selected for VP as a Democrat?":

Chait writes, "Trump is a product of a decades-long evolution in the Republican Party." And he closes with "Trump is an historical outlier. But he is also the product of the political culture of a Republican Party that is fertile soil for his brand of authoritarian ethno-nationalism. The desire to regard him as a fluke who could just as easily have wound up in the other party is the kind of evasion that has prevented many Republican elites from squaring up to the forces that enabled Trump’s rise."

Unfortunately, those who do not understand their own party history are poorly positioned to make a course correction, let alone reverse course.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Exultation and Glory

"Republicans Try to Regroup After Health Care Failure; Democrats Exult" reads the headline to Matt Flegenheimer's report in the NYT.

But did Dems exult? The story shares no evidence, no quotes from Democratic leadership indicating exultation. At this point, after taking so many shots against the ACA, you would expect Democratic leaders to feel temporary relief perhaps, but exultation would suggest misplaced overconfidence.

Is this another one of those "balanced" stories? You know, the headline that ignores context, and, when a side does not lose, they win and therefore, they exult or are "gleeful" - another favorite line in mainstream stories.

Does a soldier in a foxhole exult each time a bomb drops nearby, but fails a direct hit?

This particular instance would be harmless enough, but the problem is the extent to which the mainstream political reporters stick so strongly to their expectations for story lines, rather than react accordingly to the evidence when the playing field shifts under their feet.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Puppet Master

One element of the deny, deflect, distract, accuse tactic when employed by Trump is his instinct for the accusation against his opponent to tie back to the original denial that he has done anything wrong. See The Trumpian Way for details.

For example, in denying wrongdoing with his slippery accusation about Obama's place of birth, Trump progressed to an accusation that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the accusation. That accusation served an important role - to replace the frame of whether or not Trump made the accusation with Clinton and whether or not she made the accusation. After that point, no amount of fact checking can remove the frame. At worst, the accusation can leave an open question - maybe it was Trump, but maybe it was Clinton.

Trump has been rather desperately applying his customary tactics in the current Trump/Russia investigations. His current DDDA tactic resorts to accusing HRC of working with the Russians. No surprise there. But during the 2016 campaign, the playing field was a bit different. Though Clinton her campaign accused Russia of meddling and the U.S. intelligence agencies made that finding, the fact of Russian interference had not caught on in the popular imagination as much as it has today. So Trump's on-the-fly reaction during the final debate is telling:

"TRUMP: That was a great pivot off the fact that she wants open borders, OK? How did we get on to Putin?
...[back and forth and other topics]
Now we can talk about Putin. I don't know Putin. He said nice things about me. If we got along well, that would be good. If Russia and the United States got along well and went after ISIS, that would be good.

He has no respect for her. He has no respect for our president. And I'll tell you what: We're in very serious trouble, because we have a country with tremendous numbers of nuclear warheads -- 1,800, by the way -- where they expanded and we didn't, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she's playing chicken. Look, Putin...

WALLACE: Wait, but...

TRUMP: ... from everything I see, has no respect for this person.

CLINTON: Well, that's because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States.

TRUMP: No puppet. No puppet.

CLINTON: And it's pretty clear...

TRUMP: You're the puppet!

CLINTON: It's pretty clear you won't admit...

TRUMP: No, you're the puppet.

CLINTON: ... that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race.

So I think that this is such an unprecedented situation. We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17 -- 17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing.

WALLACE: Secretary Clinton...

CLINTON: And I think it's time you take a stand...

TRUMP: She has no idea whether it's Russia, China, or anybody else.

CLINTON: I am not quoting myself.

TRUMP: She has no idea.

CLINTON: I am quoting 17...

TRUMP: Hillary, you have no idea.

CLINTON: ... 17 intelligence -- do you doubt 17 military and civilian...

TRUMP: And our country has no idea.

CLINTON: ... agencies.

TRUMP: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.

CLINTON: Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely...


TRUMP: She doesn't like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...

TRUMP: Excuse me. Putin has outsmarted her in Syria.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump...


TRUMP: He's outsmarted her every step of the way.

WALLACE: I do get to ask some questions.

TRUMP: Yes, that's fine.

WALLACE: And I would like to ask you this direct question. The top national security officials of this country do believe that Russia has been behind these hacks. Even if you don't know for sure whether they are, do you condemn any interference by Russia in the American election?

TRUMP: By Russia or anybody else.

WALLACE: You condemn their interference?

TRUMP: Of course I condemn. Of course I -- I don't know Putin. I have no idea.

WALLACE: I'm not asking -- I'm asking do you condemn?

TRUMP: I never met Putin. This is not my best friend. But if the United States got along with Russia, wouldn't be so bad.

Let me tell you, Putin has outsmarted her and Obama at every single step of the way. Whether it's Syria, you name it. Missiles. Take a look at the "start up" that they signed. The Russians have said, according to many, many reports, I can't believe they allowed us to do this. They create warheads, and we can't. The Russians can't believe it. She has been outsmarted by Putin.

And all you have to do is look at the Middle East. They've taken over. We've spent $6 trillion. They've taken over the Middle East. She has been outsmarted and outplayed worse than anybody I've ever seen in any government whatsoever.

WALLACE: We're a long way away from immigration, but I'm going to let you finish this topic. You got about 45 seconds.

TRUMP: And she always will be.

CLINTON: I -- I find it ironic that he's raising nuclear weapons. This is a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons. He's..."

Sure, Trump often uses repetition for effect and, in the debate, provides several examples of areas where "Putin outsmarted Clinton or Clinton+Obama", but if, at the time, Trump knew that Putin was responsible for the hack of the Clinton campaign in 2016 and the distribution of the emails, then the accusation fits perfectly into the frame of blaming the Democrat because she and her campaign were outwitted by Putin every step of the way - not only by being vulnerable to the hack, but by not being able to prove that Putin was also responsible for the distribution of the emails.

Though this analysis is not proof of anything, the instinctive Trump pattern of tying the accusation he makes against Clinton back to the subject of the original denial (No puppet, no puppet) suggests that Trump knew,which, of course, would mean that he and his team were guilty of collusion with Russia on the hack and distribution of Clinton campaign emails in the 2016 election.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Working the Frame

George "Don't Think of an Elephant" Lakoff writes often about the Republican use of framing issues for tactical advantage. He advised the Clinton campaign of this tactic and recommended tactical response, but says that his arguments fell on deaf ears.

We need to pay attention to the way an argument is set forth, whether in response to a question or as advocacy for a position.

Donald Trump, Jr. is innocent of any wrongdoing. Why?  "Democrats are upset that Hillary Clinton lost the election." Notice the deflection together with reframing in terms of that horrible woman. In the preferred case, the reframing is made in terms of the hated black man, Obama, the hated woman, Clinton, or, in the ideal case, Loretta Lynch as a black woman. Susan Rice works for the same reason.

Now, the statement "Democrats are upset that Hillary Clinton lost" could logically be expressed as Democrats are upset that Donald Trump won", but removing Trump from the frame of reference is important to the art of deflection.

And more today as reported by Buzzfeed:
'“Somebody said that her visa or her passport to come into the country was approved by Attorney General Lynch,” Trump said at a press conference in Paris. “Now, maybe that's wrong. I just heard that a little while ago, but a little surprised to hear that. So, she was here because of Lynch."

Almost immediately, a spokesperson for Lynch put out a statement insisting that she had no authority over whether or not the Russian lawyer was allowed to enter the country.

"Lynch, as the former head of the Justice Department, does not have any personal knowledge of Ms. Veselnitskaya's travel,” the statement said."

But those are all details. The point of deflection is to place blame on a prime target.

What does Fox News make of this?

The banner headline and pics on the website right now is:

Russian lawyers entry into US
touches off federal finger pointing

Hmmm. Why is there an older white man in this trio? Oh. Forgot. The vaguely French man who was not a true American hero in Foxworld. Not a patriot like the current true Americans who work vigorously to improve relations with Russia.

But is it even possible for this twisted deflection and accusation to work as a tactic? Sadly, yes. For the true believers, work continues behind the scenes to forge the "set-up" story. The Obama administration and Clinton campaign conspired to make it look like the Trump administration conspired with Russia to tamper with the American election.

Their version of "the best defense is a good offense" uses the tactic "accuse your opponent of doing the terrible things that you are doing,"

Just as the campaign strategy to make Trump palatable to Republican moderates required extreme demonization of HRC in 2016, so the defense strategy to protect Trump and his family in 2017 requires accusations that the Obama administration conspired against them.

We can expect the preposterous convoluted attack on Obama/Clinton and other Democratic leaders of the past to continue during the Trump administration even as the new friendship of the American government and the Russian government flourishes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Framing the Issue in Fox World

Chris Matthews led with the latest on the Russia probe last night, as did his compatriots at MSNBC, but, per usual, Chris showed his penchant for roundabout framing of the issues. With so much focus on Donald Trump's successive story changes, followed by a "forthcoming" release of the full email exchange after the NYT informed him they were about to release, Matthews felt the need to talk about Chelsea Clinton. Several times on the program, Matthews said that if Chelsea Clinton had done anything like this, the Republicans would be all over the place trying to impeach Hillary Clinton.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with Chelsea Clinton and a pox on Matthews from bringing her name into the frame. So much of the news cycle has been filled with "what's out there", especially in the Trump era. Shame on Matthews for not understanding how this works. He misses two important points.

First, Republicans' most trusted news source Fox is already going full throttle against Hillary Clinton. This serves as a welcome distraction from the truth about the Trumps and casts a spotlight on claims of "double standard".

Second, If Clinton had won, Fox would have joined the Republicans in Congress (with Chaffetz still a member rather than a Fox contributor) working toward impeachment of Clinton with endless "investigations" in the House. If Matthews feels the need to reframe the issue based on an alternate universe that does not exist, why not the one that includes the relentless pursuit by inspector Chaffetz instead of the imaginary universe where Chelsea Clinton, who is not accused of wrongdoing in the campaign, does something wrong in the campaign.

The larger point is that we need to address the world in which we live instead of constantly looking for  an alternate universe that does not exist. The issue of the Trump's collusion with Russia is not just a campaign issue. The big question is whether U.S. domestic and foreign policy is now subject to the approval of the Russian dictator.

Meanwhile, Chris Matthews, rest assured that in the alternate reality of Fox News, both Chelsea Clinton, and her mother, are indeed subject to ongoing scrutiny.

The top story on Fox home page is "'Disgraceful!' Trump unloads on Hillary, Media Over Collusion Double Standard' Amid Reports Dems also got foreign help."  Always innocent of any wrongdoing and if caught in a lie, well, the Democrats are just as guilty every time. Everybody does it.

On some level, you have to admire the tenacity even while being appalled by the world where Trump is innocent no matter what happens because, well, he is "Our President".

As I was writing this, the Chelsea Clinton story in the prominent "Features and Faces" dropped off the home page- "Writer claims Chelsea Clinton stole book idea".

In Fox world, the war on prominent Democrats is constant, including any person who by their actions gives them aid and comfort (think Comey).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Shouts of "Stay Weak Susan!"

Back home in Maine over the July 4th holiday, Susan Collins was not hearing any shouts of "Stay Weak Susan!", but she should have been. Instead, the chant was "Stay Strong Susan!". Really? How exactly does it take guts to vote against the Senate health care bill that is so unpopular and especially unpopular in Maine?
Source: nymag

Many Mainers understand they have much to lose with the proposed legislation. But voting against the bill achieves nothing if the legislation passes because Collins and Paul vote no and 50 Republicans vote yes while Pence breaks the tie. That would mean that Collins succeeded in jockeying for position for one of the two available "No" vote spots and maintain the optics of "doing everything she could" on behalf of her constituents. But that is only optics, not reality. Collins could do more.

Collins could change parties. She could join the Democratic Party as a true conservative. This would send a loud message to Mitch McConnell that moderate Republicans are not going to put up with all of his shenanigans and he would have to reassess the metrics he currently uses to craft legislation. The Trump administration is incredibly extreme in every respect. Collins could use this moment in history to send a clear message that with Trump as the head of the Republican Party, she can no longer be a "Republican", but she is still conservative and will be a conservative Democrat. Switching party allegiance would give her leverage with the Democrats if they regain the Senate anytime soon. Granted, such a tactic might not have much chance if no moderates join her and Democrats continue to struggle at the polls.

As a moderate, willing to go along to get along, Collins would never do anything like joining the Democratic party.  But she could also change parties by becoming an Independent in the Senate for the same reasons. Challenge McConnell's leadership. Challenge Trump's

New England has a tradition of moderate Senators who change parties for a variety of reasons. Arguably switching parties in New England is more palatable to the constituents than in other parts of the country where it may be unthinkable, like Ohio. And certainly Mainers like to think of themselves as independents.

Collins need look no further than fellow Maine Senator Angus King(I) who caucuses with the Democrats. King has explained that he caucuses with the Democrats because Maine already has a Republican Senator and this gives Maine the best chance to have their interests represented. I am not sure I believe that is the reason, but it may be a reason.

Joe Lieberman comes to mind as someone who traveled in the opposite direction, from (D) to (I), technically Independent-Democrat) along a convoluted path that had him still caucusing with the Democrats, but operating always with the threat to go over to the Republicans at any moment. Anyone who watched the Vice Presidential debate in 2000 between Cheney and Lieberman could be forgiven for wondering if they were running against each other or on the same ticket.

The Jim Jeffords switch in 2001 from Republican to an Independent who caucused with Democrats provides one model of a successful switch. The Jeffords switch shifted the balance of the Senate. It works better the closer the Senate is to 50-50. With the VP a Republican, three Senators would need to cross party lines.

And yes, any such action by Collins is incredibly unlikely. She showed her true colors a year ago by maintaining the optics of reasonableness - as a Republican willing to meet with Merrick Garland following his appointment to the Supreme Court, while doing nothing within her power to change how the Senate operates.

So, instead of "Stay Strong Susan!", but being passive,  the chant should be "Become Powerful Susan!".  "Make a difference: while you still can.

Collins is expected to run for Governor of Maine in 2018. The current governor is very much like Trump. Collins would be leaving the Senate to save her state, which is laudable, but why not think big? Save your country first, or at least move your country in a better direction.

As times become more and more extreme, continuing to function as a moderate eventually turns you into a radical. If you refuse to consider all tools at disposal, others will be happy to employ all tools at their disposal to take advantage of that weakness.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Counting Lies

As a follow-up to What's Wrong With Calling Trump a Liar and posts about the problems with fact checking( here and here) , let's review the NYT Graphic in the Opinion category counting Trump's Lies.

What is the purpose exactly of this exercise? Many of us, likely a majority, already believe that Trump lies endless without inhibition. A lie count does not add value in support of that belief based on objective experience. Now, maybe if Trump suddenly stopped lying and started telling the truth all the time. Not sure how that would work at this point because, well, telling the truth would mean he would have to admit to prior lies and, if committed to full disclosure, would need to explain why he lied so much. No, not gonna happen.

Is the lie count intended to sway the Trump faithful? In case they missed it? Really? Of course not. If they did not believe he lies all the time, providing a lie count will not change any minds.

Maybe the "newspaper of record" believes that the lie count is necessary as public record. An objective record would survive as historical artifact of the Liar in Chief. But no. A public record would require an objective count of lies and NYT admits that they consider the lie count to be opinion, not news reporting.

So the intent is not clear.

I put the lie count in the category of fact checking. A tool, but one which does not tackle the core issues.

The lie count is almost a meta-factchecking or a fact checking squared.

Trump is a liar, maybe a pathological liar. Or at least a serial liar. That's a serious charge. Let's fact check that. So fact check each statement he has made since becoming president, whether or not the statement was significant and isolate the untruthful statements, then collect them in one place.
Source: nytco

But context matters too. David Leonhardt, in The Trump Lies Project: Next Steps, asking readers for advice on where to take this project, notes that:

"As for the project’s next stage: Some of the president’s defenders have argued on social media that his penchant for lying is no different than other recent presidents. We are skeptical of that notion, but we’re also open to evidence."

So, despite the overwhelming evidence of the current U.S. president representing an extreme case of behavior that many if not a majority of Americans find dangerous and much of it reprehensible, we should fact check his defenders by making comparisons with other recent presidents - as if the individuals raising that concern are really going to be swayed by the evidence suggested by a lie count.

Leonhardt's next reaction illustrates the problem:

"So if you can recall falsehoods that Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush told, send us an email with them. Documentation is ideal, but not necessary. (No need to email us about Obama telling people they could keep their health insurance or Bush claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; we’re aware of those claims.)"

The idea is that we need to go back in time according to this way of looking at the world. Yes, this is the fair and balanced approach. He said/she said journalism at the extreme. Pretend you have no prior knowledge or understanding. The only way to understand Trump is to look at him in the context of George Bush and Barack Obama, compile a list of lies without context. Are we supposed to count up the lies and compare totals?

If we need to relitigate the Bush and Obama administrations to start understanding Trump we are in big trouble.

Actually, when it comes to the Trump Lie Count, I would say it makes sense to leave it in the Opinion section where it resides and for those who disagree or want to count up what they claim are Obama lies (not expecting these folks to count up Bush lies) and leave it at that.

For the Trump lies, a better next step would be to put these in context - categorize the lies, don't count them. And, instead of checking all his public statements, focus on those that help tell an accurate story - what is he up to? Is he out of his mind? Suppose he is demented. Does counting statements by Obama or Bush that fall short on truthfulness help us decide if Trump is demented? Would it prove he is not in the pocket of Russia? Or that he is? No, of course not. Many of the Trump statements fall into the category of narcissistic personality disorder. Some of those statements are outright lies, but many might be rejected by Leonhardt's lie-counting machine. Let's check that.

Or let's go back to Trump's great defender, Vice President Pence, who spent the better part of last year's VP debate claiming that none of Trump's statements were lies. Maybe he can explain what he meant by that, because he did not adequately explain his reasoning in that debate.

Facts without context are not useful. Counting lies misses the point. And, not to belabor this point too much, but to take it from another angle, some of Trump's statements during the campaign that were called out by mainstream media as lies were not necessarily, in my opinion, definitive lies.