Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Listen: the Trump cabinet is a parade of misdeeds.

One of the most peculiar aspects of the Trump administration is that it's just too obvious.  It wouldn't be believable if it was fiction, since all of the main players seem like caricatures.  We focus a lot on the president because he's an irrational and bombastic sexual predator, but all of the secondary characters are just as offensively broad.  They each seem to be dominated by a single vice -- as though we were living in a modern-day political Piers Plowman. Witness:

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos seems to represent the political vice of Fanaticism, shunning the cold lessons of reality in favor of the warm embrace of unreasoning ideology.  For years, she and her husband spent millions and millions of dollars to lobby the Michigan legislator to permit more and more charter schools, and to eliminate as much regulation as possible.  The theory was that the free market would force public schools and charter schools to compete to improve as much as possible, driving standards up while lowering costs.  But this hasn't happened, as this New York Times article details.  The Education Trust Midwest reported last year:
Michigan’s K-12 system is among the weakest in the country and getting worse. In little more than a decade, Michigan has gone from being a fairly average state in elementary reading and math achievement to the bottom 10 states.
Now, it's good that Michigan was willing to try something new, and it's even good that private advocates were able to affect the trajectory of a cause that's important to them.  But when an experiment fails, it's important to recognize that and move on.  If you try to ignore reality, and try to use the weight of your money to force everyone else to ignore reality, too, then you are no longer an advocate.  You're a fanatic.

Betsy DeVos has used her money like a club, and she has left Michigan's children badly bloodied in the process.  But she will never recognize that, for she prefers her ignorance to the uncomfortable real world.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson is an odd person to represent the political vice of Pride, I'll admit.  He has been a pioneering surgeon and he is a brilliant man -- he has every right to be proud of his accomplishments.  But it is folly to conclude that, because you're great at one thing, you must be great at everything.  Just like his boss, Carson has fallen victim to hubris.

It's interesting to see how it played out.  See, Carson reportedly didn't feel he would have been qualified to run Health and Human Services, the position for which others might think he was naturally suited.  It turns out that although he had been a neurosurgeon for many years and manager of the department at his hospital, he didn't think he'd do a good job at HHS.  He knew enough to know that he didn't know enough, according to Jim Kemp (a Trump appointee to HUD): "Being surgeon general or secretary of [Health and Human Services], I don’t think he was fully equipped to do that, having been a neurosurgeon."

But public housing and urban development?  Well, he didn't know much about that, but he thought he saw some obvious problems that he could fix.  You couldn't ask for a better example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon by which someone's ignorance of a topic obscures their ability to recognize that ignorance.  Carson knew enough about medicine to realize he'd be a bad steward of American healthcare, but he knew so little about public housing that he couldn't see why any experience might even be necessary.  It was utter hubris, and the country is paying the price.

It is far easier to see how Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is the very soul of Graft, on the other hand.  He's not even being subtle about it.

For example, six days after Hurricane Maria brutalized Puerto Rico, the tiny mainland utility company Whitefish got the contract to rebuild their electrical grid.  This is unusual, because Whitefish had only two employees at the time they got the contract, because Whitefish had never handled a contract bigger than $1.3 million, because Whitefish had no connection with Puerto Rico, and because PREPA could have much more cheaply turned to other public utility firms under a pre-existing arrangement.  On the face of it, it doesn't make much sense.

It might make more sense once you know that Whitefish is based out of Zinke's tiny hometown in Montana, that one of Zinke's sons used to work for Whitefish's chief executive, and that there was no bidding process.

Similarly, today it was revealed that Zinke has been funneling millions of dollars to "scam PACs" that raise tons of money from small-dollar donors and then just plow it back into more fundraising and consulting.  In one instance, Zinke's associates raised huge sums to support Virginia Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli, but only 0.5% of the money actually went to help him.  99.5% was spent on more fundraising, consultants, and salaries, instead.

Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin is also an easy example of political Elitism. It's not even his background at Goldman Sachs, the huge finance firm that the country had to bail out during a Great Recession that Goldman helped cause, or even his specific role in profiting from the housing crisis by foreclosing on thousands of people.

No, it's his tendency to use the people's money as his own that's really frustrating, for at its heart elitism is an assumption that everyone else shares your own rarefied taste and habits.  When Mnuchin took a government plane to go on a trip to watch the total eclipse with his wife from Fort Knox (at the center of the eclipse) with only the flimsiest fig leaf of an excuse, it was because he couldn't imagine anyone being bothered by the practice.  Similarly, he seems to have requested a government plane for his honeymoon trip to Europe for the same reason: using public money was one of the perks, and everyone should agree with it, right?

We could speak of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price as an example of the political vice of Waste, but he was already fired for his absurd expenditures.  The judgment of history will be interesting.  It might be a black mark to serve in the Trump Cabinet, but to be fired from it for being too corrupt -- where does that put you?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a more curious personification of Fecklessness.  He was once the CEO of Exxon, one of the largest and most powerful companies in the world.  But by accepting the position of Secretary of State for Donald Trump, he has found himself -- for the first time -- utterly inadequate for the task.  Tillerson seems ill-suited for government work, since he's having a hard time adjusting to the differences from the private sector, and he has found himself continuously and embarrassingly undercut by his ignorant and impulsive boss.  He's already been the subject of three long analyses on how he's letting the State Department fail, although these analyses have variously described that failure as a "destruction," "breaking point," and "unraveling."

It's apparently an open secret in Washington that Tillerson's days are numbered, and a shadow campaign is happening as candidates compete to replace him.  It's hard to blame him for wanting to leave the job, since he thinks the president is a "moron" who is undermining every constructive effort.  In the meantime, though, he's left as the most powerful powerless man in the world.

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney might be one of the most passion-play-like examples of Hypocrisy around.  As a Congressman, Mulvaney was a prophet of doom.  He warned loudly and continuously that the budget deficit would destroy the country, saying in 2012, "It’s hard to explain how detached from reality this is, to think that the country can spend another $1.6 trillion when it doesn’t have the means."  He threatened to vote against raising the debt ceiling, potentially defaulting on American debts.  He even tried to hold up relief for Hurricane Sandy unless every dollar in disaster recovery was offset by a dollar of spending cuts elsewhere.

Now, needless to say, Mulvaney is fine with deficits.  He thinks it would be irresponsible not to raise the debt ceiling.  He doesn't want to offset disaster recovery after hurricanes hit.  He has dramatically flipped his position on several key issues that he once championed.  Whether this is because his new job has made his values inconvenient, or because he never actually believed in them... well, who's to say?

I could go on -- goodness knows that there's material enough in such figures as Attorney-General Jeff Sessions (who might play Cruelty in our little drama) or Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (Ignorance, to be sure).  But I think the point is made.  The whole thing is just too broad and obvious to be believed, and someday our children will say we are making it all up.  But we're not.  It's really happening, and we have to keep paying attention.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Listen: A path forward for gun control activism (and request for assistance).

This post presents my proposal for gun control activism.  At the end, I ask for help in furthering it.  Please comment here, on Facebook, or directly to me if you have suggestions.

Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals was raised to fame by Glenn Beck -- it was neither the best nor the most famous manual for activism before then, but a foam-mouthed Beck inadvertently made it a household name on the right during Obama's first term. All of that being said, it's still useful for its concision and the way in which it addresses asymmetric conflict.  And there is no more asymmetric conflict in the country today than the gun control debate.  A small percentage of the American public has decided that gun ownership is deeply symbolic of numerous tribal beliefs, and their passion and their smart strategic decisions have dominated the discussion and decided the outcome, every time.

For many people, the conversation ended with the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.  As Dan Hodges puts it in an oft-quoted tweet, "In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over."  In this view, the fight is over and the victors were the gun lobby and that invincible and vicious bogeyman of the American left, the NRA.  They turned a debate about appropriate regulations for a popular American hobby into a culture war, deployed their troops with passable tactics and expert strategy, and won.  And now nothing remains but for us to endure regular mass shootings, a higher suicide rate, and an astronomical accident rate.  We have lain these sacrifices at the feet of our Moloch and he will punish any defiance.

I do not accept that.

My goal is to enact reasonable and common-sense gun regulations, starting with universal background checks which prohibit anyone with a recorded felony, a history of domestic abuse, or a place on the no-fly list from getting a gun.  Past that, I also want to impose federal minimum standards for gun ownership (including a safety course, already required in many states) and to prohibit the sale of semi-automatic weapons.

How to do it?

Alinsky: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.  In a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. ... One big problem is a constant shifting of responsibility from one jurisdiction to another — individuals and bureaus one after another disclaim responsibility for particular conditions, attributing the authority for any change to some other force.

One longstanding problem with the debate is that the target is amorphous.  There's no single regulation that would have prevented all of the big-profile mass shootings, and even if there's a law that might have helped, it becomes a faceless question of degree.  The gun rights proponent can reasonably argue that banning high-capacity magazines might have saved a few victims at Sandy Hook, but it's impossible to stop someone who's willing to throw away their own life in a spree killing.  We need good guys with guns to stop these attacks, they argue... then the argument becomes a debate over statistics and studies.  And when you try to match faceless statistics against someone's very immediate personal desires, you will always lose (c.f. climate change).

We need to pick a target and make it the face of the gun rights movement.  Personalize it in a way that can be easily understood, and polarize the issue so that companies, politicians, and voters need to decide whether or not to take the side of the target.

Alinsky: Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. .. Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic. Recently the head of a corporation showed me the blueprint of a new plant and pointed to a large ground-floor area: "Boy, have we got an architect who is with it!" he chuckled. "See that big hall? That's our sit-in room! When the sit-inners come they'll be shown in and
there will be coffee, T.V., and good toilet facilities — they can sit here until hell freezes over."

The NRA seems like the obvious target, but that's their whole purpose.  It's why they've abandoned any pretense of a gun rights advocacy group.  Now they're all about the culture war.  Just check out their latest ads, which barely even mention guns.  They've gotten really good at this stuff, too, and are constantly innovating to find new ways to fight the culture war and maintain the intensity of their following.

Instead, we pick a gun company -- a company interested in maintaining its value for shareholders and which just wants to manufacture and market their firearms or accessories.  They will not be inclined to resist action, nor will they be able to handle it as expertly as an organization like the NRA.  Moreover, it should be a company which has sold a specific product which was used to kill a specific victim.  The product should be absurd.  The victim should be sympathetic.

Alinsky: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.  You cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying "You're right — we don't know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us."

In addition to those constraints, we also want to ensure that our preferred policy outcome -- universal background checks -- would have stopped the specific crime if it had been in place.  Our constructive alternative should ideally be the obvious solution in fact.

So there we have it: we need a sympathetic victim of a crime that could have been prevented if universal background checks existed, and which can be laid at the feet of a specific company.  And if all of this appears a little cold-blooded, please remember that the Scopes trial that brought evolution into the classroom began with the ACLU arranging out the perfect test case, and that the NAACP took the Rosa Parks case and turned it into a movement because she was seen as "responsible, mature woman with a good reputation" who was married and employed.  Progress doesn't happen by accident.

Once we have chosen our own case, then we'll devise tactics.  Alinsky advises that ridicule is usually the most "potent weapon," for "[t]here is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions."  And he also says that "[a] good tactic is one your people enjoy. ... They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones."

We have many things on our side as we start this fight.  We have many allies all over the country.  And I don't even mean high-profile ones like Michael Bloomberg and his Everytown initiative; the American public overwhelmingly supports numerous gun control initiatives.  This New York Times' Upshot column (hat tip: Ali Benjamin) illustrates the extent of this support.

We can do this... if we work together.

And that now brings me to the request for help that I mentioned earlier.  Here it is: I haven't yet found our target.  I am not sure any of the high-profile killings fit, or any of the many mass shootings in recent years.  What would be the perfect case for us?

Wrack your brains and hearts, and comment here, on Facebook, or in person if you have suggestions.  Then we can move forward.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Twelve Stages of Trump Rejection

It's hard to be surprised by the president these days.  There's no rumor that's so crazy that it seems impossible, since the man does and says crazy things all the time.  This is the Tyson Zone -- a state of infamy where the subject seems so erratic that no rumor is implausible.  Trump just says offensive or lunatic things on a daily basis, and we've all accepted that he has no shame.

Other Republicans do have shame, however -- as well as constituencies and some sense of history.  But tribalism is really strong.  If you're a Republican official, it's really hard to publicly oppose your own leader.  You don't want to damage our own access or your own Republican credentials, even if you are ashamed or alarmed by something Trump says or does.

Thus, the Twelve Stages of Trump Rejection.  Many Republican leaders have been gradually evolving through these stages, pushed forward by successive scandals.  Some people of conscience began their journey very near the end, unwilling to cut a demagogue any slack just because he was "one of us."  Those leaders should be commended.  The others... well, watch them evolve.

Imagine the president said that he likes when fire burns down buildings, and thinks arsonists are fine people.  He didn't, but it's completely plausible.  If you read that in a headline tomorrow, you'd sigh and roll your eyes, but it wouldn't change your judgment of the man himself.  How do Republican leaders make that journey, as reporters ask them for comment?

They start out by saying that It's Fine.
You're exaggerating, taking it out of context.  He didn't mean to say that.  The fake news media is probably misquoting him.  This will all be cleared up soon, no comment, sorry.
Oh, he really said that and meant it?  Well, it's Not What I Would Have Said.
But the president isn't a politician, so he's just not used to this world.  The media leaps on every little thing he says, so he gets to mis-speak every now and then.
He repeated his statement the next day, doubling down?  Well, then leaders might start Articulating Facts.  Marco Rubio does this a lot, saying absurd things like, "That is a statement that he has made."  The key here is that they're not wrong when they state these facts, but they're trying to avoid actually offering any opinion.
He is the President of the United States and he has the right to make statements on all sorts of matters.  There's no law against him saying things or making appointments.
Eventually, there's no avoiding the reality that not only did Trump say the thing, he really meant it.  Well, then, it's time for your Republican politician to ask What About the Other Guy?
Do you remember when Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or just some random person I heard about did the same thing?  Where was your outcry then?  Clearly this isn't important, it's just a partisan attack.
That one isn't usually very effective, so it's best when paired with More Important Things.
I don't have time to focus on the president's remarks, I'm busy focusing on jobs for the American middle class.  Or our troops.  Or something else important.  I can only think about one thing a day, sorry.
And now we reach a serious and important point in the journey.  Halfway through, we finally get away from excuses and distractions.  That's right, our Republican leader is Troubled.
I do have to say that I was troubled by the president's remarks.  Fire is actually a bad thing when it burns down people's homes.  I think whichever advisers are telling him these things are giving him bad information.
If that doesn't work, then it's time for some spin.  The Republican leaks how he has been busy with some Impotent Imploring, appealing to the president to stop saying such insane things about fire.  This is not confrontation of any kind... this is just quietly signaling your own separation.
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Sources close to President Trump have said that several prominent Republicans have been in touch with the president, urging him to back off his approval of arson and asking him to return focus to tax cuts for the rich.
The next step, Indirect Address is a step further.  That's where the politician releases a statement that clearly, obviously contradicts the president.  But to keep the heat down, they do it without actually speaking to the president or mentioning him.  You're advocating for your values, but trying to do it without getting into a fight.  Not exactly a profile in courage, but it's something.
It is not good when a fire burns down someone's home.  It is unworthy of any leader to suggest otherwise.  Arson is also bad, and we should never encourage it.
Sometimes, though, a politician leaps through visceral reaction all the way to this point.  Maybe they're ambushed with a question from a journalist before they could prepare, or maybe it's something that just hits close to him.  Maybe even accidentally, they blurt out, Okay Seriously That Is Messed Up.
He said what?  That's nuts.  Arson is wrong, and so is the president.  Anyone who is in favor of burning down people's homes is betraying central American values.
From then on, we're getting real.  With Direct Address, the Republican leader calls out the president, naming him and contradicting him.
I think the president is fundamentally wrong about this issue.  I strongly disagree, and I will continue to support firefighters and oppose arson.
If the Republican uses Adjectives or other colorful language, they can impart their statement with emotional verve and real meaning.
Arson is evil, and our divisive president is completely wrong.  He better change his mind on this, or he will find that his agenda goes nowhere.
And lastly, the Republican might arrive at the inevitable conclusion about the birther-in-chief: He's Gotta Go.
I think the president has lost the moral authority to lead, and his open encouragement of arson is unbecoming an American leader.
Why is this the end?  Because it's almost impossible to back away from.  Every previous step can be temporary.  In fact, many Republican leaders have gone all the way to Direct Address at one point or another.  But once you call for a change at the top, then that's it.  If you move back to supporting the president in other things, you are consciously and openly supporting someone you have publicly declared unfit for duty.

So far, precious few leaders have made the full journey.  Self-interest and tribalism are strong masters, as well as the finality of that last step.  But so many have gone so far down the Twelve Steps already, and we're only in the first year.  I believe that many Republican leaders will make it all the way, and join us.  I have faith in them.

Until then, we'll wait and listen, and watch them evolve.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Listen: Trump is a poor strategist, example #23442

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the budget fight is going to be ugly.  One key consideration is funding for a border wall.  Trump wants it so that he doesn't appear weak, but few other people do.  Democrats are united against it and it's uncertain all Republicans in the Senate are behind it.  That's a problem for Trump, since a budget needs at least eight Democrats to pass.

As the underlying realities grow increasingly clear, and after being humiliated by the drubbing he took over the May budget, Trump has vowed he will get that wall... even if he has to shut down the government to do it.
The fight over the wall is likely to explode in September as the administration wrangles over a new budget, an increase in the debt ceiling, the beginning of a tax reform package and a possible resuscitation of health care legislation.
Trump has told his advisers he will not accept a deal on other issues without money for the wall “and it has to be real money,” said one senior White House official.
Trump has told senior White House officials and advisers he would be willing to go to whatever lengths are necessary to get money for the wall, a contentious claim even among his advisers.
At a campaign rally in Phoenix on Tuesday, the president reiterated to his loyalists that he is committed to his vision for securing the border. “If we have to close down our government," Trump said, "we're building that wall.”
It's hard to imagine how this goes well for Trump.  Here are some possibilities.

Scenario A (not likely): Democrats buckle and eight of them cross the aisle to vote for a budget with funding for a wall.  I cannot imagine a list of eight Democrats who would do this -- five is about as high as I can get -- but it's possible, assuming that they extract a lot of concessions.  Those Democrats would be knowingly taking a huge risk, though.

Scenario B (somewhat likely): Congress approves a compromise budget without the wall, but probably with significant amounts of other things that Trump wants.  Trump signs it but blasts Congress as the enemy.  This is very possible, since the president often folds under pressure.

Scenario C (somewhat likely): Congress cannot agree to a budget, and passes a continuing resolution for the year.  This would forgo passing any legislation by reconciliation, however, so even though reaching some sort of real deal will be difficult, Republicans in Congress have enormous incentive to make it work.  Without reconciliation, after all, they have no hope of repealing Obamacare or passing tax cuts for the rich.

Scenario D (most likely): Congress passes a budget that has either zero or some small amount of funding for the wall, perhaps under a fig leaf for more "border security fencing."  Trump rejects the bill, shutting down the government.  Then... it becomes a game about who will blink first.

If you consider these possibilities -- thinking through it just a bit! -- it's clear that the White House should hope for A and plan for B.  But Trump is working hard to actually remove Scenario B from the realm of possibility.

To be clear, this is a viable option in many cases.  Game theory suggests that winning many negotiations can come down to eliminating your own option to retreat.  If you can credibly assert that you cannot possibly surrender on some point of a deal, then your opponent cannot credibly demand that you yield.  You can arrange such a situation by publicly and repeatedly vowing never to surrender ahead of time.  When Trump repeatedly states that he won't accept a budget without a wall, he is eliminating the option to do so, since Democrats will know that surrendering will be incredibly embarrassing.

So this approach can make sense.  But it doesn't work if your opponent would love for negotiations to fail!  You can't eliminate options and put pressure on a negotiating partner if they would be perfectly happy for negotiations to end!

To put it another way: imagine you want to buy a car.  The dealer says he will sell you a junker for $10,000.  You say that this price is not reasonable, and you'd be willing to pay $500 for it.  The dealer says that he can't change the price, since he's been advertising it for ten grand ("It would be too embarrassing!")

Well, do you buy the car?  Nope!  You walk away.

Perhaps Trump imagines it will be powerful and dominant to veto a budget and issue demands, and that he will be able to blame a government shutdown on unreasonable Democrats.  But Democrats would love to be able to take a principled stand over something as unpopular and absurd as billions for a border wall.  There must be hours and hours of footage of Trump vowing that "Mexico is going to pay for it," and the idea of the wall polls poorly among the public.  And because of the way this fight is progressing, people will blame a president who's already caught in a narrative of incompetence.

From a pessimist's perspective, it's possible that Trump will successfully gin up outrage against "obstructionism," but that seems far-fetched.

I don't know how all this will end, but I'd guess that the budget will be sent back to the president with some sort of minor changes, and he will sign it and declare that he had just been taking a "negotiating position" or some other silliness.

Trump needs to read some Thomas Schelling, stat.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Read: what the right is saying about Charlottesville.

The breach between the right and the alt-right is widening.  For months now, most conservative publications have spent their time being anti-anti-Trump: not actually defending the president and not really defending the principles they claim to hold, but attacking the unhinged outliers among Trump's critics.  It's hard to defend Trump's Charlottesville behavior, and it's hard to attack him, so they have often taken the easy path of just attacking any kooks they can find on the left.  Not now.

The editor of RedState, Caleb Howe, posted a beautiful and passionate appeal to conservatives.
It’s a given on social media and among bloggers that those who to this day remain critics of Trump will be called stupid names and have base motives attributed to them by a certain sort of person. ...  The "join or die" zealotry of that aforementioned disastrous column, carried on past the titular election and into the term of the roulette pistol.
That dynamic, however toxic and stupid, has held in place these past six months. The Republican rift turned into a 38th parallel, a North and South Korea staring across barbed wire and quietly building nukes. But that time is over, thanks to a different and American North and South. Now the reality of the bullets is upon us. They’ve been fired and we’re bleeding from the head. The plane is about to explode, the company to go bankrupt. The dying is at its peak. All the metaphors have realized their full selves.
You can see it in the tone and tenor of social media as well as on the news. We’ve had our share of Trump crises. But this is by far the most serious, and he has faced not only his fiercest backlash, but the most widespread within his own party. This is a moment.
Real conservatives know the phrase for such a moment. It’s a time for choosing.
A writer at The Federalist, Robert Tracinski, breaks from his publications relentless anti-anti-Trumpism to argue the same.
Right now there are otherwise good people who, out of partisan habits or long-borne outrage at biased media, are trying to concoct excuses for why Trump’s Q&A wasn’t so bad and all the criticisms of it are just fake news.
It’s time for that to stop. It’s time to stop looking at the latest Trump statement in relation to how bad you think the alternative is on the Left, or how biased the media is, and instead to compare it to what we should actually expect from a president. In a country where 99 percent of the population is opposed to Nazis, it should be the easiest thing in the world for an American president to unite the country by appealing to our shared values. Only Trump could take one of the most uncontroversial ideas in American politics, the Indiana Jones Rule, and turn it into a wrenching national argument.
I don’t believe in the supernatural, but if there were a devil, he would be laughing his head off right now as we all whip ourselves into a murderous frenzy against each other.
No, I don’t think Trump is going to resign any time soon. If he were capable of setting aside his personal vanity to do the right thing, we wouldn’t be in this situation. But he needs to be left hanging out there all on his own without support from anyone in his party (or from anyone in the right-leaning media). He is a vortex of destruction, and the only way to survive is to get everything we love as far away from him as possible.
Even Julius Krein, who founded a pro-Trump newsmagazine, now says he can no longer stand by this president due to the man's character.
I supported the Republican in dozens of articles, radio and TV appearances, even as conservative friends and colleagues said I had to be kidding. As early as September 2015, I wrote that Mr. Trump was “the most serious candidate in the race.” Critics of the pro-Trump blog and then the nonprofit journal that I founded accused us of attempting to “understand Trump better than he understands
himself.” I hoped that was the case. I saw the decline in this country — its weak economy and frayed social fabric — and I thought Mr. Trump’s willingness to move past partisan stalemates could begin a process of renewal.
It is now clear that my optimism was unfounded. I can’t stand by this disgraceful administration any longer, and I would urge anyone who once supported him as I did to stop defending the 45th president.
Far from making America great again, Mr. Trump has betrayed the foundations of our common citizenship. And his actions are jeopardizing any prospect of enacting an agenda that might restore the promise of American life.
Meanwhile, alt-right Breitbart has a cavalcade of articles about how the "Unite the Right" rally wasn't all white supremacists, how you'd have to take down statues of FDR if you take down statues of Robert E. Lee, and about how the violent "alt-left" is the real problem.  They loved this, and so did a lot of Trump's ardent base of support.  But since Trump needs more than just his base, that's a problem for him.

Now, these sorts of criticisms didn't stop Trump from winning.  Remember the National Review issue -- the whole issue! -- devoted to attacking Trump's candidacy?  A lot of voters just don't listen to elite opinion, even if it's their "own" elites.  But they badly damaged him, and the breach between the conservative movement and the alt-right will damage him now, too.

The president is finding out that a burning bridge casts a bright but brief light... and there aren't that many bridges left to burn.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Do: protect yourself from values drift.

You're a human being, which means you're adrift in a wash of information, trying to discern the truth and make good decisions in an incredibly complex world using -- essentially -- a sack of gelatinous meat.  Like every other human being, you find it impossible to devote your full mental energy to confronting every dilemma that comes your way, so you use a lot of shortcuts.

For example, let's say you're on the beach, thinking about going swimming. Should you be afraid of sharks?  Well, that's an incredibly hard question, so most people default to the availability heuristic, asking themselves, "How many shark attacks come to mind?"  If it's a lot, then sharks must be very dangerous and common, so you should be afraid of them.  If it's very few, then sharks must not be very dangerous or very common, so you can go swimming.

Shortcuts like that make a lot of sense, since they save you a lot of time and energy and are usually pretty good about getting the right answer.  I cannot think of many available examples of people being bitten by sharks, and no one I know has ever been bitten, and so I probably don't need to worry.  Absent other information (like a sign saying BEWARE, SHARK-INFESTED WATERS), I'm probably right.

Sometimes these shortcuts go badly wrong, however.  Take our tendency towards tribalism.  Our judgment can be easily influenced, even by strangers.  It's even worse when it's people with whom we easily identify -- our "tribe."  This might be a regional tribe, ethnic tribe, political tribe, class tribe, or even something as frivolous as a sports fan tribe.  We associate ourselves with our tribes.  If they are successful, we feel a little successful.  If they are evil, we feel a little evil.

Once upon a time, this might have made a lot of sense.  In a primitive world, where small groups competed for resources and warred on each other, group cohesion must have been vitally important.  The groups with genes that favored hard-wired tribalism in our brains must have had an edge over those that did not -- a tribal group would more easily forgive their leaders, support their allies, and work together.  It's always dangerous for a layman to speculate about evolutionary biology, so we won't further into the roots of tribalism, but suffice to say that it exists and it probably helped us in the ancestral environment.

Today, it causes a lot of problems.  Today, it causes a lot of values drift.

Let's say that you love football.  You used to watch the games with your whole family, and you all rooted for the same team, and you'd get a pizza and all put on your jerseys, and your uncle would shout at the television whenever he disagreed with the coach's decisions.  Your email address might be packers4evah or giantsnation.  You're into it.  You could pretty easily answer a lot of hypothetical questions about the ethics of the game.  If I asked you whether it would be ethical for a football team to release a skunk into their opponents' locker room, you could give me an opinion.  If I asked if it was okay for a team to salt the field of an opposing team, to make it harder for them to practice, you could tell me your general stance.  You can do it.

But here's the thing: your answer might change... depending on your favorite team's actions.  And that's a problem.  If your team -- your tribe -- was caught releasing a skunk into an opposing locker room, you might call it a harmless prank.  But if your team was the victim of that prank... well, you might call it a chemical attack.

It's not always decisive and seldom overt.  Tribalism is insidious: it corrupts our independent judgment and we may never even know.

In politics, it can be terrible.  It's very hard to look at your own tribe and say, "No, what you're doing - what we're doing -- is wrong."  And so we get values drift.  If someone on our side does something wrong -- something we may even have said explicitly was wrong in the past -- we find an excuse.  We say that they didn't have any choice, that they didn't mean to do it, that it's not such a big deal after all, that the context is different, that it's all a frame-up.

You see, if your tribe does something evil, you feel a little evil.  And that sucks.

Tribalism and the resulting values drift explains a great deal of current politics.

The Republicans once considered themselves the party of family values and honesty, running George W. Bush to "restore honor and dignity to the White House."  Now they support President Donald J. Trump, a man who has admitted to sexual assault and who is willing to lie about anything and everything.  But either character is central to the job, or it's not.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Many Democrats have drastically flipped back and forth in their opinion of Senator John McCain's courage -- a hero when he stood up to Bush, a villain when he picked Palin as a running mate, a hero when he joined Sens. Murkowski and Collins to save Obamacare.  But either he's a good man, or he isn't.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has spent literally hours defending a far-reaching investigation of a Democratic president by Ken Starr, only to turn around and call the expanding investigation of a Republican president by Robert Mueller a "witch hunt."  But either special counsels should seek out all potential wrongdoing, or they shouldn't.  It shouldn't matter if it helps your tribe.

Most people never even realize their values are drifting.  And that makes it even harder to fix it, later.  If you hear that someone is doing evil, justify it to yourself, and continue to support them... well, changing your mind means not only defying your tribe, but also facing up to your own complicity.  You feel stupid and a little evil.  And that sucks.

So here is my advice to you: protect yourself from values drift in politics.  Write down some rules for yourself.  And if you have the courage, make them public.

If you think you're immune to the dangers of tribalism and values drift... well, think about the Patriots and their deflated footballs.  Was it really a coincidence that Patriots fans were mostly okay with it, and a lot of other people thought it was an outrage?  I'm not taking sides, but if the fable of the Republicans and Trump doesn't sway you on the danger and neither does Deflategate, then you're not sufficiently pessimistic.

Here are a few of mine.

1.  Violence is wrong.  It is wrong to strike someone, attack them with chemicals, or damage their property because you disagree with their political beliefs.  Even if you passionately despise their politics and their character, or if you think their decisions have hurt the country, it's still wrong.

2.  Using government institutions to adversely affect the ability of any group to vote is wrong.  No part of the government should be used to affect the franchise of any group of voters, no matter their affiliation or beliefs.

3.  Everyone has a right to book publicly-available facilities and hold their events, no matter their views or speech (barring outright violations of the rights of others, such as threats or incitement to violence).  You can protest them or you can boycott those who assist them, but you cannot restrict their right to be heard.  Other people need to be able to hear them.  The marketplace of ideas must be as free as safely possible.

4.  The truthfulness of public officials is important.  Their private conduct and moral character are also important, albeit less so.  These factors may even be more important than their policy positions, in some rare instances, because the long-term damage to the state may be greater than the short-term loss of preferred policy outcomes.

5.  Prosecutorial discretion and its analogs are dangerous tools that can be easily abused.  Valid laws should generally be enforced by those sworn to uphold them.  They should not be nullified by any public servants unless they are immediately and clearly unethical, and that should be a high bar.  Nor should prioritization should not be used as a fig leaf to hide such a process: finite resources must be assigned to priorities, but that should not be used as a form of lawmaking by fiat, either.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Listen: the budget fight is going to be ugly.

The schedule for Congress when they return in September is absurd.  According the the Senate and House calendars, during September they will be in session in the House for 12 days, and in the Senate for 17.  In that time, they will need to tackle the government debt limit, the budget, and the expiration of S-CHIP (a huge children's healthcare bill).  Two of these goals are big, but probably will get done:

S-CHIP:  This will almost certainly be repealed with a big bipartisan vote.  It will take a bit of time, but they can do this.  There's been some talk of trying to package an Obamacare repeal with this bill, but GOP leadership will probably kill that (because it's an insane and dumb idea).  So far, so good.

Government Debt Limit: The government already spent this money, and now the bill has come due.  Most of the adults in the room know this already, but it's served as a convenient way for raucous back-benchers in the both parties to make noise.  GOP leadership wants a clean bill (just raising the debt limit, nothing else), but hyper-conservatives in the House are insisting on cuts to major programs before they'll agree.  Democrats have often helped out Republican leaders to get this passed, but first they want assurances that it won't just pave the way for a tax-cut bill.  No agreement on this yet, not even in principle, but a clean bill will probably get done.  It's just a question of how much time it consumes.

The third goal, the budget... that's a different story.

A budget was already passed at the beginning of May, and the Republicans got rolled at the negotiating table.  There was no money for a wall, no draconian cuts to domestic programs or the EPA, and no defunding of Planned Parenthood or arts programs.  There was money for opioids, the Biden cancer research "moonshot," Puerto Rico, and coal miner pensions.

The May budget barely winked at Trump's priorities.  I could hardly believe it, and wondered if he would even sign it.  I wrote then, though, that "[t]he most likely thing is that they pass the bill and then engage in some frenzied spin, proclaiming it a victory, and then push for a more Trumpy budget" later.

Sure enough:
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney made the White House’s most forceful case yet that the bipartisan budget deal amounted to a major win for the White House and a loss for Democrats.
One senior administration official said Trump was “not happy” as he watched Democrats claim victory in the budget negotiations, and a second senior administration official said Trump was baffled that Democrats felt they could claim victory.
Trump was so unhappy at getting rolled, in fact, that he tweeted:
The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there! We ... either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good "shutdown" in September to fix mess!
We're almost to September, and the White House is trying to make sure it doesn't get cleaned out at the negotiating table a second time.
The White House is pushing a deal on Capitol Hill to head off a government shutdown that would lift strict spending caps long opposed by Democrats in exchange for money for President Donald Trump’s border wall with Mexico, multiple sources said. ... [T]he White House is insisting on a down payment for construction this fall. ... The White House is offering Democrats more funding for their own pet projects in return for allowing construction to move ahead on a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border — though perhaps not the "big, beautiful wall" with solar panels that Trump has long promised.
Because Republicans want to raise military spending, they need 60 votes to do it (for complicated reasons involving the "sequester" of yesteryear... remember that?)  And in exchange, they're offering Democrats more money for domestic programs.  I haven't been able to find details about the offerings, but we can suspect they will include more money for the opioid crisis, some amelioration of planned cuts to the EPA and arts, and so on.  In exchange, they want 8 Democrats (or more, if there are any GOP defections -- looking at you, Rand Paul!) to agree to jack up defense spending and fund a border wall.

In January, Democrats would have begged for this deal.  Even in February or March, after the Muslim ban and a host of other outrages had enraged the Democratic base into near-apoplexy, Democrats would have agreed to this deal.  I'm surprising this wasn't the substance of the May budget, in fact.  Everyone was freaking out and Democratic leaders were looking into an abyss -- I thought they would cave.  They didn't (thanks, Chuck and Nancy!).

But in September?  The president has a 37% approval rating in the country -- that's bad enough! -- but something like an 8% approval rating among Democrats.  He's toxic, and so is his border wall proposal.

I can count maybe five Democrats who might vote for a budget that funds a border wall.  Tester, Heitkamp, Manchin, Donnelly, and McCaskill are all up for re-election in red states.  That's pretty close, so this isn't impossible.  But there are just so many problems with getting this deal done.

  • Democrats have mostly hung tough.  In the Senate, they have stayed united -- unbelievably and amazingly so.  There's not much reason for them to cave here, when they didn't cave on Obamacare repeal.
  • A shutdown helps Democrats and hurts Republicans.  As Mitch McConnell taught us all, voters blame the president's party for everything.  A shutdown will just perpetuate the current narrative -- a feckless GOP, ineffective leadership, and chaotic president.  It will look weak and chaotic, and it will provide endless opportunities for the press to report on the collateral damage.
  • Republicans are desperate.  And everyone knows it.  It's really, really hard to negotiate when you desperately and obviously want something -- and when you don't have much to offer in the way of payment or threats.
  • Stalemate or failure will badly hurt the GOP.  They don't want to kick the can down the road.  They can pass a short continuing resolution, so they can keep negotiating in October, but not much further.  Why not?  They need to get this done if they want to have a chance to pass tax cuts for the rich.  And that is their raison d'ĂȘtre.
  • Trump doesn't care about any of the above.  And he'll probably veto a budget that he doesn't like, especially if it doesn't have money for a wall.

I'm not a master of the "art of the deal."  But it seems like this isn't going to get done, unless there are some big surprises in the wings.

Prediction (with low confidence due to insufficient data at this time): I would guess that our end result will be a pretty bad budget with no funding for a border wall (but even more funding that's tangentially related to border security).  And I would further guess that the odds are even, whatever the outcome, that a shutdown will happen along the way.