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.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Imprecision Matters

Nancy LeTourneau has an interesting piece in the Washington Monthly "What Happens When You Add Projection to Gaslighting." In it, she invokes the spirit of "Karl Rove and the affection for projection." from a 2011 piece in Washington Monthly.

If you click on Steve Benen's 2011 piece, he calls Rove's tactics "projection", but technically, projection is a self defense mechanism. You project your bad qualities on others to help yourself feel less bad about yourself.

Rove's tactic is more aggressive - to accuse his political opponents of doing bad things that he or his side are already doing. While it is tempting to capture this in an existing term - "projection" - that is not precisely accurate because the objective is to render criticism from an opponent inoperative, in particular, before that criticism can be leveled whenever possible. "Crooked Hillary" is an example, not only of framing, of course, but accusing an opponent of something of which the accuser is already guilty. He does that because he knows he is crooked (and does not feel bad about being crooked). Calling Trump crooked after that, even when accurate loses much of the zing, sounding more like tit-for-tat.

One of our problems is that we do not have precise terms for the array of aggressive tactics being employed by Republicans and Republican media ever since Karl Rove figured out the world was not prepared for his onslaught. (Why don't we call Fox news "Republican media"?)

Gaslighting is another imprecise term, though it captures the spirit of the perpetrators actions, the implication is that the person being lied to is always confused for a period of time. Unfortunately, this idea that there is "confusion" is false. Many of us have seen this day coming for many years, right from the start. But again, our language has no perfect term for this.

In the 1950s, McCarthy's array of tactics eventually came to be known as "McCarthyism".

As Nancy LeTourneau writes about the Rovian tactic of 'projection', "It is a very effective form of propaganda because it turns every argument into a cause for bothsiderism, thereby cutting off all lanes to the truth. This particular form we are now witnessing is especially pernicious in that it is an attempt to cut off lanes to the truth by claiming to seek the truth and casting those who are doing so as the purveyors of chaos and uncertainty…all in the name of creating chaos and uncertainty."

Absolutely correct.

But where does bothsiderism come from? If a news organization starts with a requirement of "balanced" reporting (which the NYT does) instead of commitment to complete and accurate reporting in context and that organization bends over backwards to maintain the appearance of fairness, instead of actual fairness, "fair and balanced" by that twisted definition leads to false balance which translates to false equivalence. And truthful narrative is easily lost.

On the other hand, Fox news has functioned for years as a propaganda machine telling folks stories that "ring true" to them in a mixture of lies and distortions when politics is covered. Both Fox news and NYT claim a separation of news and opinion. But only the NYT feels compelled to throw any story that involves politics into the opinion category if one "side" comes off worse than the other "side".

Just as NYT journalism model has allowed false balance and false equivalence to prosper, the Fox news model is the progenitor of fake news - telling folks stories they like to hear.

I blame the NYT in part for the mess we are in today because the NYT should have reported on Fox in the News section (not Opinion) for the willingness to build stories on fiction and call them factual. If the NYT had been doing their job, maybe we would have precise terms for all the nasty, devious practices being employed by Republicans and Trump today and they would not be able to use these tactics while hiding in plain sight.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Unaffordable Care Act

Republicans used a consistent tactic against the Affordable Care Act, voting in the House to repeal the Act more than 50 times and passing repeal in the Senate which was met with President Obama's veto. That was a tactic, but was not a policy because the votes were all symbolic. Only the early votes aligned with a policy objective - to repeal the law before sufficient time elapsed so that Americans understood the benefits the law would confer on them. So the stage was set for repeal after election of a Republican president in 2012. Failing that, the scorched earth strategy included challenging the law in the courts, but the Roberts Supreme Court balked on that one.

If HRC had won the presidency, we would now be seeing a focus on further challenges in the courts and, if Republicans had retained control of the Senate, a 4 - 4 deadlocked Supreme Court. Last October Republicans McCain, Cruz and others sent clear signals that even nominating and approving a ninth Justice was optional, not required. Chaffetz in the House would have pursued endless investigations of HRC, thus substantiating the argument - "How can we approve a nominee of a president who is being investigated?"

Now what? The Republicans dubbed the Affordable Care Act "Obamacare" which achieved two tactical objectives - (1) Diverting attention from the goal of the law to prevent lapses in coverage for those without the fortune to have employer health care insurance while making health insurance affordable and effective in the individual market, and (2) tapping into the visceral hatred of Obama of a certain segment of their voters, which happens to a segment that Trump was able to grow by drawing nonvoters into the system.

But the success of those tactics now have an extraordinary impact on policy - "when tactics become policy". Republicans will either
(1) pass a bill that succeeds in cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans (with the prospect of further tax cuts for the wealthiest with the repeal of the estate tax and, less directly, cuts in corporate taxes) OR
(2) Trump's administration will continue to sabotage the law in order to support the notion that "Obamacare is a disaster!)
Obfuscation, lies, and distractions are not just the tactics of authoritarian regimes. In a democracy, these are the tactics used to confuse voters about policy. And now, seven years later, more than a few of those voters are wising up, which has some impact on the GOP moderates.
McConnell is sure to come back with a revised bill that offers enough of a fig leaf to the Republican moderates while convincing the Paul/Cruz et al faction that the bill is a first step in the destruction of "Obamacare". But in the end, the bill will continue to be opposed by virtually every constituency involved in health care, including insurance companies that are seeing the decimation of the individual insurance market for no better reason that to achieve the goal of repealing "Obamacare".

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Who's Caving Now

Whether Republican moderates always cave has been the issue du jour of late even before the news that Senator Heller will not support the bill "in this form". Some have argued the Senator's statement means he will not vote for the bill because pressure from the most conservative Senators will prevent the bill from moving further left as he would require to support it.

But for moderates to vote for the bill, only the optics of moving to the left matter. That means throwing a few billion their way, but that is only a token which can be easily undone in future legislation. Likewise for extending the Medicaid cutoff date. Medicare is being reshaped with this law from a benefit promise to a contribution promise, which is more easily controlled or eliminated. The radical reshaping of Medicare matters, not the exact date it happens.

This is not a prediction site, but I can not imagine the Republican bill will be stopped by Republicans. The safest bet is that the Senate bill will be changed slightly before passage and will then be passed by the House as is before the July 4th holiday recess.

Part of the Republican calculus will include allowing two so-called moderate Republican Senators to vote against the bill so that their seats can remain safe. Heller may be vying for one of those two safe spots. Susan Collins may snag the second spot, but let's see which Republicans yell the loudest about the bill over the next few days.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

When Moderates Become Extremists

Josh Marshall has it about right in 'The Moderates' Tale (or the Play-Acting Before the Cave) predicting that despite protestations by so-called moderate Republican lawmakers to the contrary, when push comes to shove, they will vote with their majority - this time it's health care, as they always do. Which is something that the most conservative wing does not do - witness government shutdowns. And why should the conservatives give in, if the moderates will always cave?

As JM states, "It is not only that the ‘GOP moderates always cave.’ It is that we are asked to (and almost always do) indulge this fainting couch routine or a furious bout of chin stroking that comes as a prelude to the cave."

Josh Marshall's example is Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, but we have one of those "moderates' right here in New England -- Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Contrast this TPM view of moderates with the Boston Globe take: Susan Collins won't back down on health care.
Like hell she won't! McConnell left Susan Collins out of the health care bill working group for one good reason - her vote could be taken for granted.

If, in the end, the moderates simply cave, then the only difference between the moderates and the extremists is the window dressing.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Tugging at One Glove

Breaking News: New York Times budges on unfair "fair and balanced" reporting.

We have complained frequently in this space about the timidity of New York Times reporting in their straight news section when strictly factual reporting might come off as politically biased, at least to a biased observer:
The New York Times With Gloves On (includes relevant links to posts)
For Propaganda 101, We Need Journalism 2.0
To Boldly Go Where No Responsible Journalist Has Gone Before

So, the big news since 2001 that Fox News has infected American news with a propagandistic approach, aggressively distorting stories and manipulating context, while claiming to be "fair and balanced" has generally escaped the careful scrutiny of NYT reporters. That big story was left to the opinion writers.

That is, until now.

It started with the post-election stories on "fake news" which revealed the sources of these stories: 'Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory; 'This is all about Income'. For some reason, that news about fake news became newsworthy after the election, but not so much before the election.

Of course, the fake news story begs the question of the granddaddy of fake news, Rupert Murdoch.

And so the Times budged, big time, with "One Nation Under Fox: 18 Hours With a Station That Shapes America. Fox News is a singular force, crafting a searing narrative about what's happening in the world for millions of viewers, including President Trump."

That headline captures the heart of the problem. First, millions of citizens could be fooled by Fox News' narrative. After enough exposure to the 'searing narrative', many of those citizens came to favor a candidate who knew nothing about government or politics, other than that same searing narrative that he himself absorbed by watching Fox News.

But that was in the magazine section, which is devoted to features considered newsworthy. Not exactly straight news, but not quite the opinion pages either.

Maybe the need to cover the Ailes and O'Reilly scandals helped with perspective on Fox.

The latest graphic provides a perfect example of the crucial link that ties the fake news story to the Fox News saga: "How Russian Propaganda Spread From a Parody Website to Fox News."

While Trump remains president, we can only hope that the courage of the NYT will only grow so that the fear of being labeled not fair and balanced, even unfairly,  will not prevent the NYT from reporting straight news, in context, with accuracy in support of a compelling true narrative because, if the NYT refrains from the narrative, people come up with their own appealing narrative, courtesy of Fox and Friends.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Art of the Lie

Josh Marshall presented an interesting timeline that merges the Comey dinner with Trump at the White House Jan. 27th into the Yates warning timeline:

But who asked for the dinner? From the transcript:

Trump, with his typical elusiveness, begins with the statement that Comey asked for the dinner, but when forced to confront whether or not that is true, Trump backpeddles to "a dinner was arranged". Typical Trump pivot to the passive voice.

Trump follow the typical patterns followed by inveterate liars and this is one example.

Start with a deliberate patent lie, but bury it in a statement about something else- why Trump made the statement in Comey's dismissal that Comey told him three times he is not under investigation. (Three times? There is that Trump pattern of repetition for emphasis. In Trump's case, lying all the time, how do you make yourself convincing? It happened not once, not twice, but three times ladies and gentlemen!".

Trump: Uh. I had a dinner with him. He wanted to have dinner because he wanted to stay on. We had a very nice dinner at the White House.

Holt: He asked for the dinner?

Trump: A dinner was arranged. I think he asked for the dinner. And he wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said I'll you know consider and we'll see what happens. But we had a very nice dinner. And at the time he told me you are not under investigation.

Now the timeline and commentary from TPM:

January 20th: Trump inaugurated as the 45th President.

January 24th: Michael Flynn interviewed by the FBI at the White House, reportedly with no lawyer present.

January 25th: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates briefed by the FBI on interview with Michael Flynn.

January 26th: Yates visits the White House to give White House Counsel Donald McGahn a ‘heads up’ about concerns that Flynn had been compromised by his dealings with and deceptions about contacts with Russian government officials.

January 27th: Yates returns to the White House for further discussions with McGahn.

January 27th: Trump has private dinner with James Comey at the White House.

An additional detail is that various published reports, in addition to statements by Sean Spicer, say that McGann briefed Trump about the Yates’ discussion shortly after he met with her. That would appear to be on January 26th, though I’m not sure we know for a certainty that it was within hours of the first meeting rather than the second.

We need a lot more information. The most immediate question is: what had the President been told when he sat down with Comey for the loyalty dinner? Assuming Comey’s version is accurate and Trump requested the dinner, when did the request come? Did he contact Comey on the 26th or 27th or earlier?

It seems highly probable that Trump went into the dinner with Comey having just learned about the DOJ warnings about Flynn, indeed that the FBI was investigating Flynn. We can’t know for sure. But it seems possible that the dinner request came after Trump learned of these things and may indeed have been triggered by that new information.

There are many questions.

Following this TPM post, Comey associates came forward to say that the dinner was a "last minute thing." We can assume the dinner was all about the loyalty question. Some commentators have tried to distinguish between small lies and big lies recently because there are some big damaging lies and some lies seem small. But with this administration, we have the big liar at the top and the enablers within the White House advisers who join in by lying on behalf of the president and thus become a part of the conspiracy of lying. In this environment and with this crew holding power, there is no such thing as a small lie.

The press had a responsibility during the 2016 campaign to be much tougher on Trump's constant lying and fell short, partly due to  their understanding of "fair and balanced" reporting, but also because they had no rule book that covers this situation. They are great when bombs are falling all around them in a war zone, but when one side in a political campaign is dropping lies all around them, they don't know what to do.

Shouldn't a member of the White House pool of correspondents be willing to take the hit by asking Spicer or Huckabee Saunders the question: "The president has been caught in many lies that have been well documented. Does the president believe he can continue to lie constantly throughout his term? Or would that just fall flat?

Unfortunately, history tells a sad story. In 2008, AP reporter Glen Johnson challenged candidate Mitt Romney on the campaign trail in the middle of a lie. The contentious (though not all that heated) exchange was the big campaign news of the day. Columbia Journalism Review found that there was No Need to Apologize.

Unlike Trump, Romney mixed lies into his campaign narrative the way a mother mixes bitter medicine into apple sauce for her toddler. The apple sauce is awful, but it still tastes like apple sauce and you can legitimately call it apple sauce. In other words, Romney was not all about the lies the way Trump is all about the lies. But, as I argued throughout 2016, the Trump phenomenon is a logical result of Republican presidential campaign tactics and strategy.

In that 2008 exchange Romney is interrupted before he can finish his statement, but he is saying "I don’t have lobbyists running my campaign. I don’t have lobbyists that are tied to my- " when AP writer Glen Johnson interrupted. Romney pivots during the argument with Johnson to back away from the unfinished "I don't have lobbyists tied to my [campaign]" to the firmer, but still shaky ground "I don't have lobbyists running my campaign" for which he had at least plausible, though not necessarily credible argument.

The point is that Trump was able to emerge from the field of 17 Republicans because he was the most able and willing to take underhanded, but not unheard of Republican tactics to the extreme. Today our democracy suffers as a result.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Party of Trump 2017 Version

Krugman hits the mark with today's piece on Republican complicity in the destruction of democracy.

As he has noted in the past, the Republican party today holds power in part by making allies of the wealthy and mostly white working class citizens. The interests of the two groups diverge on major issues like health care, which has required a pattern of lies and obfuscation in Republican campaigns and government. Trump won in 2016 by carrying the obfuscation to an extreme combined with demonization of his opponent. We are witnessing the continued lying tactics to maintain power. Are you being "too pessimistic"? Sean Hannity's "Question of the Day" today is "Should the FBI reopen its investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server?". Doubling down just like it's 2016. After that seed is planted in Trump's head, with his continued consolidation of power through firings, threats, and intimidation, the only independent prosecutor or independent investigation we can expect is of Hillary Clinton. Because that is what they do.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The New York Times with Gloves On

The New York Times has a relatively new feature "Right and Left: Partisan Writing You Shouldn't Miss" introduced with this tag:
"The political news cycle is fast, and keeping up can be overwhelming. Trying to find differing perspectives worth your time is even harder. That’s why we have scoured the internet for political writing from the right and the left that you might not have seen."
NYT has sought more feedback on this feature than is normally their custom, so here goes.

Most of us do our own curating of articles from around the internet - much of that comes from Twitter suggestions from pundits we like.  This NYT feature could introduce us to new and valuable sources.  What could be wrong with that?

Well, nothing really, but I wonder about the perspective that prompted this.
Is this another case of both sidesism?

The logic of both sidesism:

1. Objective journalism is the goal.
2. To be objective, journalism must be fair and balanced.
3. Based on 1 and 2, every issue in politics has two equal and opposite sides deserving of equal amounts of respect. Similarly, the Democrat and the Republican in a campaign deserve equal treatment.
4. Balance in a political news article about a campaign requires that any story that suggests a negative conclusion about one candidate must cite similar observations that can be made about the opposing candidate.

Proper context gets lost in that environment. Underhanded political tactics and lies (what NYT sometimes called "Mr. Trump's mischief") are left to thrive.

The biggest problem with journalistic false balance/false equivalence is that Republican strategists are expert at using these journalistic shortcomings to their advantage.

The strategy of deny/deflect/distract/accuse was finally widely recognized following the 2016 election campaign because Trump was such an extreme case, but his methods were merely an extension of existing Republican strategy.

Virtually every statement by Trump and any House Republican about the health care law now needlessly repeats the refrain "Obamacare is such a disaster". Spicer's stand-in today, Huckabee Saunders did the same thing. This art of repetition of a campaign slogan as if it were an objective statement of fact,  left unchallenged - or even when challenged --- leaves lasting subliminal effects on the willing listener and distracts from the specific goals of the legislation. Republicans never have to talk about their goals for health care if they can just repeat that refrain.

One reason these lies and distractions are subjected to only minor challenge on-the-spot is the journalists clinging to their "objectivity" based on the "fair and balanced" approach.

So I am left wondering if the NYT curating articles for us comes from a perspective of - "We, the NYT, know that you are probably intensely partisan in these polarized times, but here are articles from "the other side" that may help you to learn about what others think and maybe change your mind on some issues. "

The Times feature includes articles from "the Center". Under this framework, "the Center" (not to be confused with "the Center" to which the Soviet spies on "The Americans" report) represents a position that is granted a leg up on credibility by not being either demonstrably left or right -- but that is not how truth and understanding work.

I have written previously on this, as in Normal Times and For Propaganda 101 we need Journalism 2.0. and "Waiter There's False Balance In My Soup" and "To Boldly Go Where No Journalist Has Gone Before".

My first reaction to this "Partisan Writing You Shouldn't Miss" is not that it is a bad thing. But it is an exercise in avoidance. Long ago, in the early 2000's Fox News showed itself to be a major force on the political scene. Posing as a straight news source, Fox functioned during the Bush administration as an instrument of the State and, during the Obama administration, as an opponent, in both cases, willing to promote a point of view with lies and distortions. That was a big news story with implications for American politics that the Times avoided to confront directly in context in order to bend over backward to sustain the appearance of objectivity. Gloves off would have been better.

Monday, May 1, 2017

More Chess than Checkers

Fact Checkers Can't Keep Up With Trump Lies recounts the Washington Post lie count for DJT since inauguration day. But as we said in In a Sane World, it's not enough to say"When the journalist conducting the interview fails to challenge him[Trump] on his lies, they subtly validate the claims Trump makes in their reporting." True, but the man is a proven pathological liar who has leveraged the power of lying to enormous political advantage. Fact checking is a necessary, but insufficient tool of journalism - insufficient because of the necessary delays required which permit the liar to control the narrative and move on to the next fabricated story - the next big lie.

Devotion to the truth means that every statement DJT makes that the journalist does not know immediately with certainty to be true is fair game to be challenged as questionable at best. No journalist can be expected to recognize every Trump lie immediately. Only then can the playing field in the battle between truth and lies be leveled. One method would be to do an immediate internet search during the interview. Sure that slows down the discussion, but is there an alternative?

If DJT (or Spicer, his enabler in WH briefings) objects, another approach is for the journalist to walk out of the room in disgust, rather than letting the lies just sit there.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Springtime for Spicer

Spicer's indefensible Hitler analogy -- to paraphrase "even Hitler was not this bad..." was the clear result of reverse engineering - "What can we possibly say to explain the complete US policy backflip on Syrian intervention that occurred within a matter of days?" Well, Assad has shown himself over a period of years to be an unbelievably horrible mass murderer, so what changed? Bombing a hospital? No, as horrible as it is, that is not new. Dropping chemical weapons - OK, let's go with that one, but, as awful at that is, how is that so much worse than the preceding horrors perpetrated by Assad?  We need to say this is much worse, so let's say Assad is even worse than Hitler. Sometimes, when Spicer bumbles in his responses, one gets the impression he is uncomfortable in this role - lying and exaggerating, but pretending he has no awareness of his own behavior.  The problem here is that we have a president who has relied exclusively on tactics to gain advantage throughout his working lifetime and who has no relevant knowledge and no interest in the requirements of his job and is determined to avoid hiring people who know what they are doing. We can expect continued reliance on tactics without a strategy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nuclear Option

Today we are seeing the ability to filibuster Supreme Court justices in the Senate disappear, the so-called "nuclear option". That was easy. Actually, the decision by Mitch McConnell last February not to allow the Senate to consider any nominee of President Obama, no matter how moderate, was the real nuclear option, in terms of momentousness, but the name was already taken.

Given the continued erosion of the comity of the Senate over recent decades, we are better off dispensing with the supermajority requirement and possibly other Senate prerogatives (judicial holds) which only function well within a spirit of cooperation. The sooner the system falls under its own weight, the sooner we may be able to achieve comprehensive reform of the federal government, including electoral reform. That can only happen if Democrats gain substantial power at the national level, which only happens if there is strong negative reaction to Trump and the Republicans because for Republicans, the current system is working just fine, thank you.

It's Not Me, It's You

With the ascendance of Donald Trump and Republicans in power in Congress, we are nevertheless experiencing a rash of tactics denying personal responsibility, which is fascinating given the party's emphasis of personal responsibility as a talking point on government policy.

Trump famously denies responsibility and deflects attention with a lie. A lie can more powerfully distract from reasonable discourse than a true statement. True statements lead to meaningful discussion, which is a place Trump shuns. Blaming Obama is his favorite sport.

McConnell blames Democrats for the his failure to permit the Senate to consider any Obama Supreme Court appointee in 2016, saying, to paraphrase - "Does anyone believe he Democrats would have done anything differently if the roles had been reversed?". Actually, yes, I believe they would have held hearings on the appointee of a Republican president, but there is no way to prove what would have happened in that alternate universe. McConnell's tactic distracts from meaningful discussion. No one in the press seems to ask him whether he is concerned about the destructive effect of his actions. His claim amounts to - "The Democrats are bad and I am just as bad.". Seems to merit more discussion of where that leads for a society. And for some reason, what the Democrats would have done in the imaginary world is ripe for discussion, but just before the November 8th election which HRC was expected to win, Republican leaders -Cruz and McCain - were talking about maintaining a Supreme Court of eight justices, or even fewer, if Hillary Clinton became president.

Finally we have Devin Nunes recusing himself from the House Intelligence Committee investigation following a series of shenanigans, but is he responsible for his own bizarre and compromising actions? No, he bears no accountability and blames anyone but himself:

“Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics. The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power."

Nunes scores a double, or maybe a triple or quadruple there - (1) blaming 'leftwing activist groups', not his own suspicious activities AND (2) deflecting attention to the "unmasking" issue, which (3)  is itself a concocted distraction from the Trump tweet on 'wiretapping' which (4) is itself a distraction from the Trump team's extensive ties to the country formerly known as the Soviet Union.