Monday, March 28, 2016

Common Mistakes

In going to war, it is a common mistake to begin at the wrong end: to act first, and wait for disaster to discuss the matter.

-- Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, 5th century B.C.

This week's featured post is "Buying Back American Democracy". And if yesterday's church service left you feeling uninspired or maybe even a little alienated, check out the "Struggling With Easter" service I led three years ago.

Last week's featured post "Tick, Tick, Tick ... the Augustus Countdown Continues" turned out to be way more popular than I expected, with more than 8000 hits in its first week.

This week everybody was talking about terrorism

As you undoubtedly know, Tuesday morning three bombs went off in Brussels, two at the airport and one at a train station, killing 34 (including three suicide bombers) and injuring 300. The perpetrators had ISIS training, and some were connected with the Paris attacks in November.

Whenever something like this happens, I try to remind people of the points I covered in "Terrorist Strategy 101: a review". What makes a terrorist attack different from all other kinds of warfare is that its targets have no military significance. In this case, for example, the attackers did not go after NATO headquarters (which is also in Brussels), or a Belgian air base. If they killed or injured any military personnel, it was by coincidence.

A terrorist attack is similar to a bank shot in pool. The attack itself accomplishes little that is useful to the attacking side, so its whole purpose is the bounce it leads to: the response from the side attacked. That's why, if some response immediately leaps to mind, you always have to ask yourself: "Is this exactly what they want me to do?"

The pool of potential ISIS recruits consists of Muslims who feel that a world community dominated by the West has no place for them, and leaves them nothing but bad choices: They can be ruled by autocrats more loyal to Western money than to their citizens, like the House of Saud or the generals in Cairo. Or they can live in war zones like Syria or Iraq or Libya or Gaza. Or they can come to the West and join a despised and dishonored underclass.

ISIS's terrorism aims to goad us into responses that expand their recruiting pool by justifying that view of Islam and the West. If they can get us to heap scorn on Islam in general, to ghettoize and demean immigrant Muslims in Western nations, to commit atrocities against innocent Muslims in the Middle East, or in some other way to make it harder for Muslims anywhere to find a place in our world order, then they've succeeded.

President Obama understands this, which is why he always seems so unresponsive after an attack. He generally says something equivalent to: We have a long-term strategy, which is to tightly focus our counterattacks on the people who threaten us and our allies. That strategy is going to succeed and so we're going to stick with it.

Admittedly, that's really unsatisfying. What anybody with mammalian hormones wants to hear is that we're going to lay waste to everything that has even the faintest connection to the attackers, until they're really sorry they riled us up. But that's a sucker's response; the whole point of the attack was to trigger it.

By contrast, Ted Cruz went straight for the sucker response:

We need to immediately halt the flow of refugees from countries with a significant al Qaida or ISIS presence.

We need to empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.

We need to secure the southern border to prevent terrorist infiltration.

And we need to execute a coherent campaign to utterly destroy ISIS.

The bizarre implication of that second point is that we don't just have a problem with terrorist individuals, like the couple who carried out the San Bernardino massacre, but that we face a threat from entire Muslim neighborhoods. Even weirder is Cruz' belief that a heavier police presence in those neighborhoods can prevent "radicalization", when it obviously would push in precisely the opposite direction: Nothing alienates people faster than being hassled by police because of their race or religion.

Vox connects this radicalized-neighborhood paranoia to the imaginary "no-go zones" in Muslim neighborhoods of European cities, a bit of dystopian nonsense Bobby Jindal invented after the Paris attacks. As so often happens in the conservative echo chamber, delusions don't get corrected as facts emerge; instead, each delusion becomes a building block for the next one.

Cruz has spelled out his "coherent campaign to utterly destroy ISIS" before: carpet bomb areas that include large numbers of ISIS fighters, rather than being "politically correct" by trying not to kill innocent civilians. (Words that might substitute for "politically correct" here are humane or not a war criminal.) Killing their innocent wives and children might radicalize a few people too.

Trump similarly took the bait, reiterating his endorsement of torture and "knocking the hell" out of ISIS, whatever that means. The Chicago Tribune's Rex Huppke summarized the Cruz/Trump approach:

We see problem. We hit problem with big stick. Problem go away.

and Cuba

Bloody attacks and fist-waving responses are more eye-catching, but in the long run the most important thing that happened this week was probably President Obama's trip to Cuba. He was the first American president to visit since President Coolidge came three decades before the Cuban Revolution.

Obama is doing what he can to normalize relations, but he can't end the embargo against Cuba without an act of Congress, which he is unlikely to get because Congress is broken. At this point no one can argue that the half-century-long embargo has succeeded in overthrowing the Castro government, or that it will succeed if we stick with it just a little bit longer. It is one of those temporary policies that has continued through the decades precisely because it wasn't working. If it had worked the way it was supposed to, Castro would have fallen in 1960 or 1962 and we'd have normalized relations with his successor.

This is something to remember when Donald Trump calls for a "temporary" ban on Muslim immigration "until we can figure out what's going on". Once something like that gets started, it can continue for half a century or more simply because no event allows us to declare victory and we can't admit our mistake.

The Cuban embargo was such a mistake. In Cold War Europe, Communist East Germany had to limit travel to West Germany because it couldn't let its citizens compare the two societies. Similarly, Communist Cuba would have had to prevent its citizens from measuring their lives against their cousins' in Miami. But the embargo allowed Castro to blame us for the separation.

Everything Obama does is an outrage to conservatives, so this trip was too. Their outrage crystallized around this photo of Obama with a Che Guevara mural in the background.

How dare he! Of course it was fine for President Reagan to speak under a bust of Lenin at Moscow State University.

Or for the first President Bush to be photographed in Tiananmen Square with Mao's image behind him.

But Obama and Che ... that's completely different!

This continues a pattern that goes back to the earliest days of the Obama presidency: When he does things that many previous presidents have done without incident -- put his feet on a desk, take a vacation with his family, send a secular-themed Christmas card -- it provokes outrage. It's almost as if Obama himself were different, in some indefinable way, from all previous presidents. (I cataloged a bunch of examples of Obama-specific outrage two years ago in "What Should 'Racism' Mean?".)

and the 2016 campaigns

The Sanders campaign has been saying for weeks that things would get better for them when the campaign got to the West, and they were right. Clinton may have won the Arizona primary, but Sanders put up huge margins in the caucuses in Utah, Idaho, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii.

As a result, Clinton's lead in pledged delegates shrank from 327 last week to 230. The amount that Clinton is running ahead of her minimum winning pace (according to Nate Silver's model) fell from 112 to 92.

Unfortunately for Sanders, that nearly finishes the caucuses. (Participating in a caucus requires more time and effort than voting in a primary, which favors the candidate generating more enthusiasm.) Wyoming and North Dakota are the only state caucuses left. Worse, most of the remaining primaries are closed (i.e., restricted to registered Democrats), which favors Clinton. The big states still to come -- New York, Pennsylvania, California -- have large minority populations, which also favors Clinton.

The next contest is an open primary a week from tomorrow in Wisconsin. The limited recent polling indicates a small edge for Clinton. Two weeks later comes a closed primary in New York, where Clinton was a senator and recent polls have her up by around 30%. As I said last week, Clinton could still self-destruct in some way, but unless she does, it's over.

If you thought the Republican race couldn't go lower after the nationally televised discussion of Trump's penis a few weeks ago, you were wrong. And it just keeps getting worse.

One point I'll make about the smear-the-other-guy's-wife exchange: Neither Melania Trump or Heidi Cruz has faced anything like the vitriol that has been unleashed on Michelle Obama these last eight years. Michelle has been a First Lady we should all be able to take pride in, but apparently she looks like a gorilla if you put your racist glasses on.

Thursday evening I was at a Massachusetts house party for Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, the only physicist in Congress. (If you're a science type and aren't excited by your local House race, check him out. He's been winning close elections in a traditionally Republican district and needs your help.) Barney Frank spoke. Barney is expecting a 1964-scale landslide this fall, with Trump playing the Goldwater role.

Jamelle Bouie debunks "the myth of the Trump Democrat". Trump's favorable/unfavorable ratings among Democrats are roughly the same as Ted Cruz', or about where Mitt Romney was four years ago. Likewise, among working-class white Obama voters, Trump and Cruz are about equally popular. In short, Trump's working-class white support mainly comes from people who stopped voting for Democrats a long time ago.

Josh Marshall and Nate Silver make a similar point with different data: In those blue states where Trump's appeal to working-class whites is supposed to turn things around, there's no sign of that happening. Trump trails Clinton by wide margins in rust-belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. When he has won primaries in blue states like Massachusetts, he's been doing it with a fairly small number of voters, due to a relatively small Republican electorate split among many candidates.

Summing up: It's way too early to say that Trump can't win in the fall, but the scenarios Democrats worry about aren't showing up in the numbers yet.

and bigotry

Apparently the biggest emergency in North Carolina is something about bathrooms. Wednesday, the NC legislature was called back for a special session to deal with the horrifying prospect of Charlotte protecting LGBT rights. In a single day (which allowed 30 whole minutes for public comment), Republicans managed to introduce, hold hearings on, pass through both houses, and sign into law a bill that:

overturns Charlotte’s ban [on LGBT discrimination]: It also prevents any local governments from passing their own non-discrimination ordinances, mandates that students in the state’s schools use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate, and prevents cities from enacting minimum wages higher than the state’s.

So can we finally dispose of the myth that Republicans and conservatives favor local control over Big Government? If a city or town in North Carolina wants to protect LGBT rights or insist on workers being paid a living wage, the bigger government in Raleigh says they can't. And if the consensus opinion at some state college is that they can deal with gender ambiguity in their bathrooms, well, forget about it; the bureaucrats have spoken. Conservative political correctness says that men are men and women are women, so that's that. (BTW: What if there's a typo on your birth certificate?)

In another context, I ran into a phrase this week that applies here: dominance politics. There is no actual problem here that needs solving, and certainly nothing that couldn't wait for the legislature's next regular session. The point of the bill, which is emphasized by the elimination of all normal procedure in its passage, is for Christian culture warriors to express their dominance.

Naturally, a backlash is brewing, as national and multinational businesses that have LGBT employees resist sending them to work in a state where they have been declared to be second-class citizens, with no rights which the majority is bound to respect.

and you might also be interested in

This week's guns-make-us-safer story isn't about somebody shooting somebody by mistake, it's evidence that nobody really believes the NRA's propaganda. As in 2012, the 2016 Republican Convention will ban guns. I mean, if a good guy with a gun is the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun, what could be safer than to crowd thousands and thousands of good guys with guns into an arena? As Colorado State Rep. Carol Murray put it:

when you have a gun-free zone, it's like saying, 'Come and get me.'

I shudder to think of all those unarmed Republicans huddled together with nothing but professional law enforcement to protect them, waiting helplessly for someone to come and get them. It's just too horrible.

If you listen to Trump or Cruz speeches, you'll frequently hear the prediction that Hillary Clinton will soon be indicted for her emails, or, if not, it will only be because the Obama Justice Department is blocking such an indictment.

One typical version of this Republican fantasy was in the March 20 New York Post. According to anonymous "associates in the private sector" who claim to have contact with unnamed FBI agents, who supposedly know the mind of FBI director Jim Comey (whether by talking to him directly or by hearing talk filtered through several other intermediaries), Comey "is getting stonewalled, despite uncovering compelling evidence that Clinton broke the law."

The article is a near-perfect conspiracy theory: Since even its third-hand sources are anonymous, and neither the "compelling evidence" nor the laws allegedly broken are specified, nothing in the story can be checked against reality. And it makes no predictions that could be checked in the future: If nothing happens, that's because Obama's stonewalling succeeded.

A much more compelling analysis comes from Richard Lempert, one of the authors of the security manual for the Department of Homeland Security, who explains why Clinton won't and shouldn't be indicted: Whenever you identify a specific law that Clinton might have broken, and then check the known facts against the provisions of that law, there's no crime.

The staff of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is cleaning up and getting ready to reopen in a few weeks. Estimates of the costs to taxpayers stemming from the Bundy occupation are at $5.7 million and rising, not to mention the loss of time and data in environmental research projects, and the unquantifiable damage to archeological sites. This week, local media got its first look at how trashed the place was.

and let's close with an intervention

Ireland gives America the girl-to-girl talk we really need. "Don't give away your nuclear codes to the first megalomaniac that flashes his cash at you. You're worth more than that, America. Have some self respect."

Monday, March 21, 2016

Very Bad Things

Riots aren't necessarily a bad thing.

-- Scottie Nell Hughes,
a Tea Party activist who has campaigned with Donald Trump

This week's featured post is "Tick, Tick, Tick ... the Augustus Countdown Continues".

This week everybody was talking about the Supreme Court

President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the seat vacated when Justice Scalia died.  As Chief Judge of the second-most-powerful court in the country, Garland is arguably the most important judge not already on the Supreme Court. If you're just looking at pure legal qualifications, this is the most qualified person Obama could have picked.

So this much is clear: President Obama did his job and played it straight, offering the Senate someone they have no reason to treat as if he had cooties. If there's some weird political gamesmanship going on, it comes the other side.

Many progressives are disappointed, wishing Obama had made a bolder, more liberal choice -- not to mention a younger nominee who might expect to be around for several decades, rather than a 63-year-old. (Another name often mentioned is Sri Srinivasan, who is 49.) But at a time when the Senate is controlled by the opposite party, I think it's appropriate to trim in their direction just a bit, making agreement easier and obstruction harder.

I'm feeling a little smug about the advice I gave right after Justice Scalia's death:

If I were Obama, I would take McConnell’s obstruction threat seriously, and appoint whoever I thought would work best in a why-don’t-they-do-their-jobs attack ad. I’d be looking for a Mr. Rogers type: Somebody who exudes a sense of basic decency, who wouldn’t ring any alarm bells about affirmative action or political correctness.

That's pretty much what he did.

and primary results

Democrats. Sanders' hope for winning the nomination depended on keeping Clinton's victories isolated in the South, with her Massachusetts win looking like a fluke. Yes, she had a big delegate lead, but that was because the Southern primaries all came early in the process; everything would change when the big rust belt states started voting.

His surprise win in Michigan seemed portentous, even if didn't do much to close the gap. (Because the vote was so close, Sanders only got 4 more delegates out of Michigan than Clinton did.) What if he gained momentum and swept the other Midwestern industrial states by larger margins?

Well, now we know that isn't going to happen. Tuesday, Clinton finished her Southern sweep by decisively winning Florida and North Carolina. But more importantly, she also won big in Ohio, narrowly in Illinois, by an infinitesimal margin in Missouri. Sanders did not win anywhere. So now it's Michigan that looks like the fluke.

I know a lot of you aren't going to want to hear this, but it's over; Clinton will be nominated. There are no winner-take-all states on the Democratic calendar that would allow Sanders to catch up in big chunks, and that's what he needs to do.

Nate Silver sums up:

It’s not that it’s mathematically impossible for Sanders to win; Clinton could have some sort of epic meltdown. But she controls her own fate while Sanders doesn’t really control his, and she has quite a lot of tolerance for error.

The Sanders campaign argues that the calendar has turned in their favor; now that the South is out of the way, the remaining primaries are better for them. And that's true, but not on the scale they need. Here the significant number isn't Clinton's 327-delegate lead in the raw count, but that she's 112 delegates ahead of the pace Silver's model says she needs if she's going to win, taking state characteristics into account. (If the delegate count were currently 1050-968 in Clinton's favor, Silver would regard the race as essentially even, given that Sanders' worst states are behind him. But she actually leads 1162-835.)

For example, suppose Sanders were to win 41 of Arizona's 75 delegates tomorrow. (The most recent poll shows Clinton well ahead, but it's not very reliable.) That would lower Clinton's raw lead by 7, but since Silver's model tagged Arizona as Sanders-favorable going in and set 34 as Clinton's delegate target, she would remain 112 delegates ahead of her projected winning pace.

Republicans. Donald Trump also had a good day Tuesday, but his prospects are murkier. He leads Cruz and Kasich in delegates 695-424-144, but he has less than half of the delegates awarded so far, and Silver's model has him 24 delegates behind the pace he needs if he's going to win a majority.

The RCP national polling average has Trump fluctuating between 30-40%, with Cruz and Kasich both rising and the open question of what Rubio's supporters will do now that he's out of the race. The only post-Rubio poll has Trump/Cruz/Kasich at 43/28/21. So there's a real possibility Trump will enter this summer's Republican Convention with a clear delegate lead, but not the majority necessary to nominate him.

Sanders and Kasich are both being told that if you can't win you should quit. This seems silly to me: If you have a case to make and the means to make it, I don't see the problem. If the candidate, donors, and volunteers are willing to accept the risk that they may be wasting their time and money, that's up to them.

On the other hand, if your last chance is to run a harshly negative campaign against your party's front-runner, that raises a different question: Is your slim hope of victory so important that it's worth sabotaging your party in the more likely case that you don't get nominated? But that's more a question of tactics than of continuing or quitting. So far, neither Sanders nor Kasich has been that negative.

One message coming from the Sanders camp is starting to annoy me: They never say it in so many words, but they often imply that their supporters should count more than Clinton's supporters.

For example, when they start enthusing about Sanders' support among young voters, even in primaries that he lost, I find myself thinking: "Yeah, but each under-30 voter only gets one vote, and older voters get one vote too."

I hear something similar in the more recent argument that if Sanders wins a bunch of late primaries, the superdelegates should respect his momentum and give him the nomination, even if Clinton has won more non-super delegates (subdelegates?) and gotten more total votes. Sanders strategist Tad Devine even suggests pledged delegates should break faith with the voters who elected them if Sanders wins late primaries: "When a frontrunner assumes the lead, that frontrunner needs to win to the end."

Again: Everyone agrees that the early primaries favored Clinton and the late ones favor Sanders. But late-primary voters, like early-primary voters, should just get one vote.

If you're a Democrat fretting over the higher turnout in Republican primaries this year, 538's Harry Enten says you should stop:

Democrats shouldn’t worry. Republicans shouldn’t celebrate. As others have pointed out, voter turnout is an indication of the competitiveness of a primary contest, not of what will happen in the general election. The GOP presidential primary is more competitive than the Democratic race.

He has the historical analysis to back that up. A particularly striking example is 1988, when (like today) a two-term president was headed out the door: The Democratic primary turnout that year was nearly double the Republican, but Bush beat Dukakis decisively in the fall.

and let's follow up on some previous discussions

Trump as con man. I talked about this two weeks ago in "Peak Drumpf". The New Yorker consults an expert: Maria Konnikova, author of The Confidence Game. She never makes a definite pronouncement, claiming you'd have to see into Trump's head to be sure, but the upshot of her article "Donald Trump, Con Artist?" is: Yeah, probably.

Trump-inspired violence. [discussed last week] Of course there were new incidents, since Trump has done nothing to tone things down. As VoxDara Lind concludes:

Maybe it's gone so far that even Donald Trump can't stop it. But no one knows that yet, because Donald Trump hasn't tried.

In the both-parties-are-the-same version of reality, Bernie Sanders is the Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump. But look how each responds to accusations that he promotes his supporters' aggressive behavior.

Bernie draws a clear line between peaceful protest and disruptive violence.

We have never -- not once -- urged any supporter of ours to disrupt a meeting, and I think that's kind of counter-productive. Having a respectful demonstration, a protest, is I think absolutely right. ... [but] disrupting rallies is not my style. I would urge people not to do that.

Trump, on the other hand, never completely disowns his followers' violence, or draws any clear line at all. Sometimes he openly praises violence, saying things like "Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up." and "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you?" and "I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks."

When he does distance himself from acts of violence, the message is always mixed. A vague denial that he condones or promotes violence is followed with praise for his violent supporters: They are "very passionate". They have "spirit". They "love this country". (I hear echoes of the way a wifebeater excuses his crimes: He loves this woman so much she just makes him crazy.) Their victims are "bad dudes ... big, strong, powerful guys doing damage to people" -- damage that for some reason is never caught on video, despite happening in rooms full of Trump supporters with smart phones. (BTW: What racial image is conjured up by the phrase bad dude?)

This week, when Trump predicted riots at the Republican Convention if he isn't nominated -- a scenario that I don't think was in the public mind until that moment -- he did not condemn the possibility or commit himself to trying to stop it, but said only "I wouldn't lead it." A prominent Trump supporter (though not quite a spokesman) went farther while talking to Wolf Blitzer:

Riots aren't necessarily a bad thing ... [Not] if it means it's because [Trump supporters are] fighting the fact that our establishment Republican Party has gone corrupt and decided to ignore the voice of the people and ignore the process.

Huffington Post reporters Daniel Marans and Ryan Grim lay out six steps to brownshirt-like violence. The Chicago protest could mark the beginning of Step 4: The opposition fights back. Trump's tweet "Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to your [events]!" threatens Step 5: Going on offense. (Though that threat hasn't materialized yet.) Next comes Step 6: Picking a shirt (or hat) color.

I've seen claims that Step 6 is happening too, but so far I'm not convinced: The so-called Lion's Guard looks more like a small-scale fascist group (I use that word carefully, having read their blog) trying to get publicity than an organic Trump-supporter group with serious membership. From what I've seen so far, it could just be one guy with an overactive imagination.

Apple vs. FBI. I talked about this last month. More recently Jonathan Zdziarski writes:

At the end of the day, I sit here and look at the core questions that are on the table. Should the government have carte blanche rights to force anyone to work for them? Should the privacy of people’s entire past be subject to a warrant? Should people be allowed to have private conversations, private thoughts, private ideas – all things stored on people’s iPhones – subject to search by the government? I am honestly in shock, and saddened by the fact that any of these questions could be raised at all in this country.

And Boing Boing quotes Zdziarski's summary of an Apple legal brief: "If it please the Court, tell the FBI to go fuck themselves." That's a "translation" of this:

Apple instead objects to the government's attempted conscription of it to send individual citizens into a super-secure facility to write code for several weeks on behalf of the government on a mission that is contrary to the values of the company and these individuals.

Privileged Distress. Several people have pointed out the resonance between "When You’re Accustomed To Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression" and my second-most-popular post "The Distress of the Privileged" from 2012. It's good to see these ideas spreading.

While we're on the subject, Chicago Theological Seminary claims to give its students "white privilege glasses".

The Bundys and their allies. [The Bundy-ranch stand-off was discussed in "Rights Are for People Like Us" and "Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex". I covered the Malheur Refuge occupation week-to-week earlier this year.] The government is throwing the book at both father and son.

The Oregon incident drew Cliven Bundy away from his armed camp and into a situation where he could be easily arrested for charges stemming from the 2014 standoff at his ranch: "conspiracy, assault on a law enforcement officer, carrying a firearm in a crime of violence, obstruction of justice, interference with commerce by extortion and aiding and abetting others in breaking the law". Thursday, his petition to be released from jail pending trial was denied. Judge Carl Hoffman explained:

I do not believe, Mr. Bundy, that you will comply with my court orders any more than you have complied with previous court orders.

Refusing to acknowledge federal authority -- which I'm sure ingratiates him to the federal judge -- Bundy has declined to enter a plea in the case.

Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, whose jurisdiction adjoins Harney County, where the Malheur Wildlife Refuge sits, openly sympathized with the occupiers, and is now under investigation by Oregon Justice Department for his role in the 41-day standoff.

The occupation's leaders were on their way to meet with Palmer when they were arrested (in a confrontation where LaVoy Finnicum was killed). The state police originally planned to make the stop at a more tactically advantageous site in Grant County, but decided to avoid Palmer's territory and instead set up their roadblock in Harney.

From jail, Ammon Bundy spoke out in Sheriff Palmer's favor:

Sheriff Palmer went to the source and found out the truth. He found out that we at the refuge stood for the Constitution, [and the protesters] love this country and would not hurt another person.

That deep desire to harm no one must have been what all the guns were for.

Oregon Public Broadcasting has also been calling attention to the links between the Malheur occupiers and Republican politicians via the Coalition of Western States.

Ferguson. When we last talked about this, Ferguson's city council had balked at full compliance with the deal it had negotiated with the feds, and the Justice Department responded by filing a lawsuit. That seems to have gotten them back into line. The issue going forward is whether Ferguson can survive financially or will have to go bankrupt. But it looks like they won't be allowed to solve that problem by using their police force and municipal courts to squeeze money out of the poor.

and you might also be interested in

A concise explanation of how the rich have used race to divide the working classes, going all the way back to colonial times.


Vanity Fair imagines how things might have gone if Donald Trump had run as a Democrat. In some ways his appeal to working-class anger would work better there, but there would be a problem:

Democrats still make an effort to base their policies and debates, however imperfectly, on fact. That’s an awkward fit for Trump, who has a habit of making things up.

In case you've been hoping Republicans unite around Ted Cruz, think about the list foreign policy advisors he put out:

The first name on the list? Frank “Obama is a Muslim” Gaffney, Bloomberg reports. Gaffney is the Joe McCarthy of Islamophobia. His think tank, the Center for Security Policy, is dedicated to raising awareness about the jihadist infiltration of the American government. For Gaffney, Barack Hussein Obama is but the tip of the iceberg — in truth, the Muslim Brotherhood has placed operatives throughout the federal government. Among their top agents: Clinton adviser Huma Abedin and anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist.

and let's close with some Rose Garden rap

Many of you have probably seen this already, but it's worth a second look. Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of the Hamilton musical, shows President Obama how to freestyle.

Monday, March 14, 2016


No man is free who is not master of himself.

-- Pythagoras

This week's featured post is "My Racial Blind Spots", where I try to answer the question that Don Lemon asked Bernie and Hillary.

This week, I'm feeling trolled

If I had to pick a moment when I started on the path that led to current-events blogging and eventually to the Weekly Sift, it would be one beautiful summer day in (as best I can reconstruct it) 2000. I was walking through a lovely stretch of woods, but all I could do was rage about the issues I'd been hearing about on TV: Elián González, the Microsoft antitrust trial, and some other things I can't even remember now. Then I had one of those view-yourself-from-the-outside experiences, and I thought: "This is nuts. I'm in an idyllic setting and I'm miserable. Why am I letting CNN control my emotions like this?"

I resolved to be more mindful about bringing my own values and my own interests and my own point-of-view to the news, rather than letting somebody else control my attention. I would strive to focus on the issues that I found to be important, rather than the ones that had been chosen for me. And when I did think about the "hot" issues, I would do it as myself, not as an outrage machine programmed by somebody else.

Three years later, I felt good enough about my relationship to the news that I started sharing it by blogging. Eventually that became a weekly thing, and in 2008 I started the Weekly Sift. But that summer walk in the woods has continued to be a touchstone: Am I really bringing my own intelligence to the news, or am I just reacting? Am I absorbing events and processing them, or is stuff just bouncing off of me like another wall in the echo chamber?

Right now, I'm finding this presidential campaign to be a challenge, and I suspect many of you are too. I feel two black holes trying to draw me in: First, the mainstream horse-race coverage of the presidential campaign, where polls and tactics and spin are all that matters, and speculation about who will win eclipses thinking about whether any of these people would be good at this job, or what their administrations would mean for this country and the world.

And second, Donald Trump. Two weeks in a row, my featured post has been about Trump: "Trump is an opportunistic infection" and "Peak Drumpf". And again this week, what is the obvious thing to write about? The escalating threat of violence at Trump rallies, leading to the cancellation of his rally in Chicago, Secret Service agents rushing the stage to protect him in Dayton, and demonstrators getting pepper-sprayed in Kansas City.

Neither of those black holes should be ignored, because there's a lot of important stuff to think through: Who wins this election seems really important. And the Trump candidacy represents something different from all the major campaigns of my lifetime, one that it's not obvious how to respond to.

But at the same time, I keep noticing that my affect is all wrong: I don't want to think, I want to react. I want to get whipped up and whip everybody else up too.

That's what it feels like when I'm being trolled. When somebody has trolled me, responding always seems desperately important, as if taking a moment or two to consider other options would be an act of cowardice and risk catastrophic loss of face.

But I've come to believe that those are precisely the times when it's most important to take that moment, and use it to connect with your higher ideals, your deeper values, and the wide sweep of your life. After remembering the fullness of who you are, you can return to the current circumstances ready to apply your full creative intelligence, rather than do the knee-jerk thing the troll is probably counting on you to do.

So this week the featured post is about something else, because there's a lot more to pay attention to than polls and the Donald. But of course, that stuff is happening too. So take a moment, and then we can plunge in.

OK, now let's talk about violence

We're not used to violence at American political rallies, and I hope we don't get used to it. But it's important to remember that the violence we've seen so far has been more threat than reality. It's a dark cloud and a few sprinkles, not a rainstorm.

A few protesters inside the Trump rallies have been pushed or punched by Trump supporters, and a number have been dragged away by the security people, but I know of no serious injuries. Trump has talked about violence by protesters, but so far that seems to be mostly in his fevered imagination. The protesters who got inside the Chicago rally and caused its cancellation intended to be noticed and (in some cases) loud, but their prepared tactics focused on resisting violence, not using it. (I've heard several interviews where protesters talked about linking arms, a tactic that makes it hard for anybody to drag you away, but doesn't threaten others.)

So far, the most noticeable violence has been in Trump's rhetoric: He has talked about wanting to punch a protester in the face, instructed supporters to "knock the crap out of them", offered to pay the defense costs of supporters who fight with protesters (he's still deciding whether to follow through on that promise), and so on. He may eventually get violence on the scale he's asking for, with people carried out on stretchers, but so far he hasn't.

The Trump spokesman who announced the Chicago cancellation said it had been done after "meeting with law enforcement", but (like so much that comes out of the Trump campaign) this seems to be misleading at best. Chicago Police deny advising cancellation, and had been confident of their ability to maintain order until thousands of Trump supporters were told they came all this way for nothing, with the implication that those protesters were to blame.

To me, the point of cancelling the Chicago rally was to change the media narrative about violence: Trump wants to shift blame onto the protesters and make himself the victim rather than the villain.

and the First Amendment

The line from the Trump campaign is that the protesters "shut down our First Amendment rights". This is based on a perverse notion of the First Amendment that conservatives have been pushing at least since Sarah Palin in 2008:

If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.

As I define it in "A Conservative-to-English Lexicon", First Amendment rights means "The right of a conservative to speak and write publicly without criticism." The real First Amendment, though, works like this: If Trump wants to speak, he has a right to do so. But if other people want to protest non-violently, they have a right to do that too. Depending on how public the event is and whether protesters are inside or outside, Trump's campaign may then have the right to demand they leave. But if the prospect of being heckled causes Trump to cancel a speech, that's on him. Nobody has taken away his rights.

XKCD elaborates:

Trump's exaggerated claim on First Amendment rights is widely shared among his followers. In a Frank Luntz focus group on Fox News, one Trump supporter complained that "You can't even speak the truth any more or you'll be called a racist or a bigot." And the woman next to him chimed in: "I have a right to my opinion without being labeled something."

No she doesn't. This pernicious misconception of free speech survives from the days of overt white supremacy, when anyone who disagreed with the status quo was too intimidated to speak up.

In fact, you have no right to speak your mind "without being labeled something". You do have a right to speak your mind, but if what you say convinces other people that you're a bigot, an idiot, or whatever else, they have a right to speak their minds too.

Imagine if the same extended interpretation of the First Amendment applied to liberals: When Trump called Sanders a communist, he'd have been violating Bernie's First Amendment rights. And that's obviously ridiculous, even to a liberal like me.

Until the Chicago protests, everybody was talking about Sanders' upset victory in Michigan

Last week I speculated that blacks, older voters, and middle-aged women looked like a winning coalition for Hillary Clinton, and said that Bernie Sanders would have to dent that somehow to pull out a Michigan win.

I also repeated Nate Silver's reading of the polls: He wasn't going to.

But he did. According to the exit poll, Clinton still carried the black vote, but not by the enormous margins she had been running up in the South. Michigan blacks went for Clinton 68%-28%, which is way less than in Tuesday's other Democratic primary, Mississippi, where blacks chose Clinton 89%-11%.

Overall, independents made the difference. Only 69% of the Democratic primary electorate described themselves as Democrats, and they went for Clinton 58%-40%. Self-described independents went for Sanders 71%-28%.

In terms of delegates, Clinton continued moving towards nomination: She picked up 95 delegates and Sanders 71. According to the 538 model, Clinton is running 13% above a minimal victory pace, down slightly from 14% a week ago.

Nobody knows what this means for tomorrow's primaries in Illinois, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina. In all those states, Clinton leads in the polls ... just like she did in Michigan. The most unpredictable one has got to be Illinois: Like Michigan, it's an open primary, so independents could make the difference. Also, local issues come into play: Bernie's supporters are being credited/blamed for shutting down the Chicago Trump rally, which could move voters in either direction. Also, the unpopularity of Mayor Emanuel might drag Clinton down, and an unusually hotly contested states attorney primary is bringing Black Lives Matter voters to the polls.

and Trump keeps rolling (in BS)

Tuesday, after winning in Mississippi and Michigan, Donald Trump had the oddest victory celebration ever. He held a press conference instead of a rally (as he's been doing lately), and called reporters' attention to a table of "successful" Trump products to counter Mitt Romney's claim that "a business genius he is not".

That would be weird enough: At a moment when most candidates would be praising the wisdom of the voters and thanking all the volunteers whose hard work produced this important victory, Trump did an infomercial for his brand. But it's actually weirder than that, because as The Daily Show's Jordan Klepper (and all the other reporters who bothered to investigate) discovered: "It's all bullshit." None of the products was what he said it was.

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This week's guns-make-us-safer story is about Jamie Gilt, a Florida mom who had been boasting on Facebook about how much her 4-year-old son enjoys target shooting. (I mean: guns and preschoolers. What could possibly go wrong?)

Tuesday, she was driving with the boy in the back seat when he apparently got hold of a handgun on the floor and fired it through the driver's seat, hitting his mother in the back. She survived.

Trying to display some former-First-Lady solidarity and find something nice to say about Nancy Reagan during the coverage of her funeral, Hillary came up with this:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan—in particular Mrs. Reagan—we started a national conversation.

Which is kind of the reverse of how things actually happened. A few hours later, she issued a statement walking it back. The Atlantic's "Gaffe Track" draws the moral:

Don’t speak ill of the dead, but don’t make things up about them, either.

The way conservative media preys on older people and changes their characters for the worse has been noted before, but now there's a documentary about it, "The Brainwashing of My Dad" by Jen Senko.

I think the Supreme Court roadblock is going to cost incumbent Republicans in purple states, particularly if Trump is their nominee. I've seen this commercial about our NH incumbent senator:

Donald Trump wants the Senate to delay filling the Supreme Court vacancy so he can choose the nominee next year. And Senator Kelly Ayotte is right there to help. Ayotte joined Trump and party bosses in refusing to consider any nominee, ignoring the Constitution.

If you want to know what Republican one-party rule looks like, check out Kansas, where all notions of constitutionality and fair play have gone out the window.

President Obama's job approval, which has been negative in the RCP polling average since June, 2013, is positive again.

One advantage I believe the Democrats are going to have this fall: Our convention is going to be inspiring and heart-warming. President Obama will get the send-off he deserves, the loser of the nomination struggle will make an impassioned speech about the importance of uniting to win, the VP will be somebody we can take pride in, and the entire week will highlight the positive human values that Democrats share.

By contrast, even if the Republicans manage to unite behind Trump and avoid a scorched-earth battle, their convention is going to be about scapegoating and raising anger, probably worse than the public-relations disasters of 1964 and 1992. The unpredictable, barely coherent ramble that makes a Trump rally speech so entertaining is going to play badly as an acceptance speech. It's not going to be pretty.

A religion professor at Mercer University finds that the popularity of Trump and Cruz represent two distinct failures of Christian teaching. In Cruz he sees a failure of commission, a distortion of Christian priorities that is nonetheless taught in many churches and has been part of right-wing politics for many years. But Trump looks like a failure of omission. Churches aren't teaching Trumpism, but their members aren't getting the moral foundation for resisting it:

In the Christian moral formation of these supposed Christians they have not been offered an adequate inoculation against this kind of politics. What they needed was instruction in a version of Christianity with ironclad commitments to civility, solidarity, justice, mercy, compassion, rule of law, and human rights, commitments so strong and so well-engrained in believers that to support someone like Trump would be unthinkable. But they have not received that inoculation.

Lots of people have noticed that President Obama is aging, as presidents tend to do. But I don't hear nearly as much talk about the far more remarkable fact that Michelle isn't.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a medical test that gave me a lot of time to chat with the tech, a 50-ish woman who for some reason wanted to talk politics even though she claimed to have no interest in it. She had voted for Trump in the NH primary on the advice of her husband, who pays much more attention to such things than she does. But now she was having second thoughts. Trump seemed "dumb" and "a bully", while John Kasich was looking much nicer.

I thought I might learn more from her than she would from me, so I didn't interrupt.

She didn't justify either her decision to vote for Trump or her subsequent regret by mentioning any policy at all. Not the wall, not the Muslim ban, not trade, not jobs, not America's role in the world -- nothing. Her son had served in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and is safely home now), but she didn't talk about either finishing the job in those countries or avoiding similar boondoggles in the future.

For all non-political purposes she seemed like an intelligent, well-intentioned person. But presenting a policy argument to her would have been like talking to somebody who doesn't follow baseball about whether the Red Sox overpaid for David Price or would have done better to spend that money last year to hang on to Jon Lester. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about and don't see why you should, that's the point.)

So consider this note a follow-up on the voter model I presented in "Say, you want a revolution?". If you're politically active, you need to understand that the voters may not be who you think they are, and their support or opposition probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

I wonder if it's significant that the final line of the Game of Thrones trailer is: "Apologies for what you are about to see."

and let's close with a view from far away

Funny or Die gives us the U.S. presidential race as seen from Finland.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Unsound Minds

He speaks his mind, but his mind isn't right.

-- 13-year-old Jayka,
in "Kids Have More Sense than Donald Trump Fans"
(which, sadly, seems to have been removed)

This week's featured post is "Peak Drumpf", where I make the case that we finally have the right anti-Trump argument.

This week everybody was talking about that strange debate

The best response to Trump's nationally televised, out-of-the-blue claims about his genitalia is College Humor's #TrumpShowUsYourPenis campaign.

It's about transparency. He brought the subject up, and since fact-checkers have determined that so many of his other claims are false, this one requires evidence. The demand isn't even partisan: If Hillary claimed to have a big penis, they'd want to see that too.

and the presidential race in general

After Super Tuesday, the question in both parties has been: "Is it over?"

I've been amazed by the number of pundits I've heard say something equivalent to: "Unless something changes, the leaders will end up winning" -- as if this were the kind of wisdom people should pay them for. (A better version is sometimes attributed either to Yogi Berra or a Chinese proverb: "If you don't change, you'll end up where you're headed.")

The most intelligent answer to the question comes, as it so often does, from Nate Silver's 538. Using a model of which states are good for which candidates, they've traced a most-likely-path-to-the-nomination for each candidate. In other words: If a candidate were going to just barely win a majority of the pledged delegates -- phrasing the question that way puts to the side what the Democratic super-delegates will do -- how many would you expect come from each primary or caucus? And how does that compare with the number of delegates that candidate has gotten in the contests decided so far?

On the Republican side, Donald Trump is running 5% ahead of his minimum winning pace. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is 14% ahead of pace.

Neither of those leads is all that intimidating in an absolute sense, given that something like 2/3 of the delegates are still to be chosen. But what is making Trump and especially Clinton seem inevitable is that some underlying trend has to change before anybody can beat either of them. Cruz or Rubio has to catch fire, or Sanders has to become competitive among black voters, or something.

If you can't say exactly what that "something" is or why it's going to start happening now (when it hasn't been happening so far), the current trend feels locked in. That's why George Orwell observed, "Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible."

I will say this about the Democratic race: I think the results so far show that blacks plus older voters plus middle-aged women is a winning coalition for Clinton. Sanders can't turn things around unless he breaks that somehow.

A sports analogy: Sanders' situation is like a running football team (i.e., a slow-and-steady offense) that falls behind. At some point the team has to drop its running game plan and start passing, because time is running out. It's not that Sanders can't win at this point, but that he can't win just by continuing to do what he's been doing. Pushing the analogy further, Clinton could still blunder into losing, as the other team could if it committed a string of turnovers.

Tomorrow's Michigan primary is a good test. If Sanders were to become competitive among blacks and pull off a win in Michigan -- which in an abstract sense ought to be perfect for his economic message -- the race would be wide open. Clinton's lead would then look like a regional Southern thing.

But the polls say that's not going to happen. The RCP average of polls in Michigan has Clinton up by 22 points, and the poll most favorable to Sanders still has him trailing by 11. Nate Silver gives Clinton a 99% chance of winning in both Michigan and tomorrow's other primary, Mississippi.

About the super-delegates: My personal opinion is that if Clinton and Sanders wind up virtually tied, the super-delegates will put Hillary over the top. But if Sanders has any advantage larger than a round-off error, the super-delegates will come around as well.

Last week I discussed Clinton's strong showing among black voters from the point of view of "What do I know? I'm a white guy."

I've got something better this week. Dopper0189 on Daily Kos explains "Why black voters vote the way they do". It's a long post with a lot of different insights, very few of which I would have guessed.

The big thing I learn from dopper0189 is that you can't win over the black community with an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. Even if your policies seem (to you) like they would obviously benefit many blacks, you have to go out and sell those policies to the black community in very specific terms. This isn't because blacks can't make the connections themselves, but because they've seen those connections fail so many times. Plans that are targeted at "everybody" somehow wind up defining "everybody" in a way that leaves them out. That goes all the way back to Social Security, which originally made no provision for household servants or field workers or many other black-dominated jobs.

Going forward, let's look past Bernie for a minute, to 2020 or 2024. If a future progressive candidate is going to marshal the kind of black support that it seems s/he ought to get, it's going to take a lot of work over a period of time. The candidate is going to have to start building those relationships well before the campaign, the way Hillary did.

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Trump introduced his healthcare plan. It's about what I expected: A collection of ideas that have been hashed over in Republican circles for years -- like circumventing state regulators by letting insurance companies sell from whatever state they want (presumably the one that most tilts the field in their favor) -- plus a number of promises and assurances that the specified proposals don't deliver. Vox comments:

He says, "We must also make sure that no one slips through the cracks simply because they cannot afford insurance. We must review basic options for Medicaid and work with states to ensure that those who want healthcare coverage can have it."

There's a hint of a promise there that under Trumpcare, everything will be fine. Everyone will have access to health insurance, should they desire it. But there's nothing in Trump's proposal that takes him from point A to point B. There's no explanation of whether the government will pay for this care and how they'll deliver it

Two things stand out: TrumpCare eliminates ObamaCare's guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can buy insurance on reasonable terms. And rather than the subsidies ObamaCare offers to help poor and working-class people buy insurance, Trump offers only a tax deduction for premiums. So if you aren't currently paying income tax, you get no help buying health insurance; and if you are paying income tax, those who pay a higher rate benefit more from the deduction.

Unemployment continues to fall: down to 4.9% in February. That's the lowest rate since February, 2008, when President Bush's economic collapse was just getting started.

Critics from Bernie Sanders to Ben Carson sometimes express skepticism about the unemployment rate, since it doesn't count would-be workers too discouraged to look for a job, part-time workers who want full-time work but can't find it, and various other people who have reason to be disappointed in the job market.

But as I've explained before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of those folks too. It publishes a variety of unemployment measures, prosaically denoted U-1 through U-6. U-1 is people unemployed for more than 15 weeks (currently 2.1%, flat since October, down from 2.5% a year ago). The unemployment rate you see in the headlines is U-3, while U-6 is the broadest measure of unemployment.

U-6 in February was 9.7%, which sounds bad compared to 4.9%, but also reflects a big improvement in the job market when you make apples-to-apples comparisons: A year ago U-6 was 11%. It hasn't been this low since May, 2008, and it peaked at 17.1% in late 2009 and early 2010.

Governor Bobby Jindal writes in the WSJ that President Obama is to blame for Donald Trump. That is true in the same sense that President Lincoln was to blame for the KKK. If he'd just left slavery alone, the backlash against abolition would never have been necessary.

I'm left wondering if Jindal has found some way to blame Obama for the mess the Jindal administration left behind in Louisiana.

I've got a book recommendation: Misbehaving, the making of behavioral economics by Richard H. Thaler. The standard economics (which you may have learned in college) is based on the notion that markets are made up of rational actors who use all the publicly available information to make the best possible individual decisions. Everybody knows that's not strictly true, but since the 1950s economists have held that it's a good-enough assumption for making economic predictions.

Since the 1970s, Thaler's career has revolved around poking holes in that worldview. In other words, he's been looking for and documenting situations where the quirky decision-making of real human beings leads to results very different than the rational-actor models constructed by economists.

Not only is that an interesting topic that has all sorts of fascinating real-world applications (including the over-valuing of high draft picks in the NFL), but Thaler is a marvelous story-teller. His stories -- of experiments in human decision-making, and of his attempts to introduce more realistic thinking into the stuffy and self-important world of academic economists -- are consistently amusing. The book's ongoing theme is that whether you are talking about contestants on Dutch game shows or University of Chicago business school professors choosing offices in a new building, people are funny -- and you can't really understand the world until you account for the predicable ways that people are funny.

The title has a wonderful double meaning: Economic models can fail when humans "misbehave" by not making the supposedly rational choices the model calls for. But by pointing out such embarrassing glitches, Thaler was also "misbehaving" according to the community standards of economists. So his career is a story of successful rebellion.

Finally, there's political significance to the revolution Thaler has been leading: Idealizing markets, and exaggerating the powers of the people who participate in them, tempts a person to turn all of society's decision-making over to "the Market". For decades, economists' false assumptions have biased their analysis in favor of market-based solutions. But people who are still making those simplistic Econ-101 arguments in favor of free markets are behind the times. They are, as Keynes observed, "slaves of some defunct economist".

and let's close with some tongue-in-cheek advice to black filmmakers

If they'd wanted Straight Outta Compton to win an Oscar, it should have centered on Paul Giamatti's character. If you're not getting the joke, read David Sirota's essay "Oscar Loves a White Savior".