Saturday, October 19, 2019

If...

If only Mayor Pete were 10 years older. To my ears, he is the most measured, smartest candidate on offer in a crowded field. But at 37, despite being far wiser than his years, he still seems just a little too young.  Of course my yardstick is partly self reflection; I know that 20 years ago I would not have been capable of shouldering that kind of responsibility (nor, for that matter, am I now), or distilling the complexity of the issues he will confront into action items. Admittedly, that may not be a good yardstick. But Biden, for all is faults, had been there (or at least close enough to know what to expect) as has Warren, to a lesser extent, too.   While I'd live to see a woman of color in the White House, Harris has performed inconsistently in the debates. Bernie is both too old, too ill, and too radical. And none of the others have a prayer.

Perhaps a Biden/Buttigieg ticket would clear the way for Mayor Peter to get two terms (2024, 2028) but there's a risk that the Dems could loose in 2024. And a B/B ticket also means not electing a woman nor another person of color.  And then there's electability; Mayor Pete might not bring enough independents on his own; he is too new on the scene to earn the trust of the black vote which Harris and Biden have.  So in no particular order (yet)...


  • Biden/Buttigieg (experience and fresh ideas)
  • Warren/Harris (two women in the top jobs)
  • Biden/Harris (fighting for the under-represented)
  • Warren/Buttigieg (the intellectuals)

Of course all these combinations are predicated on the VP candidate accepting the job which is by no means certain. Harris and Buttigieg may both have other plans.
     

Republicans, what did you expect?

Republicans are suddenly all up in arms that Trump's reckless decision-making has led to a foreign policy, national security and humanitarian disaster.

Really?

You ship of fools didn't see this coming? You threw order, decorum, protocol and precedent to the four winds and now seem surprised that in their absence bad things happen? How could a lust for power and influence have so blinded you to reality? A second rate reality TV personality with no interest or experience in government or foreign affairs, who has run a family real estate business with some pretty shady goings-on; this is the man you stand behind, the man you are willing to entrust our futures to?

Really? 

I understand escalating commitment to a failing course of action (Staw and Ross, 1976), but how many lines does he have to cross before you wise-up (or fess-up that you know all along but went along anyway)?     

It's time to get real.  Really!

Friday, October 18, 2019

The lining of the pockets

Brazen; that's about all one can say about Trump's decision to host the next G7 summit at his own hotel. That he sees no problem with enriching himself by funneling taxpayer dollars into his own pockets through his tenure in public office is at once astounding, and at the same time, given what we know about him, not in the least surprising. Yet it plumbs new depths in corrupt self-dealing. His prior forays into pocket-lining were simply preludes, testing the water, softening up the critics before cashing in "the big one". 

For Mulvaney to say that "the team" concluded this was the best venue can only be explained as either a bald-faced lie, or by assuming that "the team" was told what the outcome would be and then asked to find "comparables" to give the preordained answer a semblance of plausibility.

Anyone who sees this as acceptable behavior is implicitly condoning corruption in the highest public office and the abuse of public trust that plagues America democracy. 

This is the corruption in the "swamp" Trump said was the problem with Washington. What is now clear is that he didn't mean it was wrong; only that he couldn't get in on the action. Now he has; so I suppose that's alright.

Plus ca change, plus c'est encore pire. 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Orwell Maneuver

In his epic novel "1984", George Orwell wrote about totalitarian regimes shaping the narrative by simple repeating self-evidently false statements so often that people ended up questioning their own beliefs and ultimately relinquishing what they knew to be true. That tactic was on full display today.

First Trump claimed victory in Syria even though he got nothing of substance from Turkey in return for not imposing sanctions; his boast (obviously) ignored the fact that the situation he claimed falsely to have resolved was one entirely of his own making in the first place.

Then there was Mick Mulvaney's admission that a political quid pro quo did take place in Trump's dealings with Ukraine but that this was business as usual. Yes negotiations involve the use of leverage, but that should be to extract concessions in the national interest, not for personal political gain.

Mulvaney tried to suggest that the action being called for was backward looking to the last election. That could be construed in two ways: it might be taken as evidence of an effort to prevent future meddling in the upcoming election by better understanding what happened three years ago. But that seems to very unlikely given that Trump has shown no interest in preventing foreign meddling in US elections; indeed, he has encouraged it. A more likely explanation is that Trump's ego (and rellection chances) require that any suggestion that his win was tainted by interference be purged from public memory, that the Meuller report was a hoax and missed the "real villain". To do this he needs a countervailing conspiracy theory that the Democrats were somehow guilty of instigating and benefiting from foreign election meddling.

But despite Mulvaney's claim, the action being sought clearly isn't just about interference in the last election. His admission of a quid pro quo is particularly problematic given the ample evidence, specifically the transcript of the conversation with Ukraine's President Zelensky, that the ask was not limited to an investigation of possible tampering with the last election but an effort to smear a current and future political opponent. Having admitted that aid (and a visit) was part of the bargain and given that what was being asked has been clearly stated elsewhere, Mulvaney has, in essence, made an iron clad case for impeachment.

As if not content with all this, Trump then confirmed that he wants to use his own hotel to host the upcoming G7 conference, a clear violation of the emoluments clause.

In an era of astonishing stupidity and corruption in the White House, this was one of the most head-spinning days in living memory.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Senator, please answer the damn question...

At least Bernie was up front about raising taxes on everyone to pay for medicare for all.  Elizabeth Warren (again) refused to admit when pressed repeatedly that taxes need to rise. We understand that costs overall (assuming you take up medicare) would go down. I can only assume Warren has decided to never ever make a statement that the GOP can use in their campaign ads. But it's wearing thin for those of us who want to better understand how her plan would work. So, Senator Warren, please answer the damn question (even if you didn't write the damn bill).

This time it's different?

It could be. Trump's violation of norms? Meh! Not reading briefing books? Who does? Circumventing diplomatic protocols? Who cares! Vulgar behavior? Just locker room stuff. Cussing?  Get over it, for @#$% sake. One after another, these instances of unprecedentedly terrible behavior have been brushed aside.

But this time Trump's capitulation to Erdogan's request to "get out of the way or be run over" (imagining and paraphrasing the phone call, Sunday October 6th), to be crudely cynical, has some real "made for TV" consequences, and is right in Trump's reality-game-show wheelhouse. Except this doesn't look good for him and he can't stage manage the consequences.

Images of fleeing refugees, shelling, burning buildings, and troop convoys flying flags from 'mainly Muslim countries', all unleashed by an ill-considered spur-of-the-moment decision, made without consultation with military experts, show clearly enough for even the most willfully blind Trump supporter the appalling consequences of a having a fake president, one who refuses to take his enormous responsibilities seriously, who treats experts with contempt and who, astonishingly, thinks himself a "stable genius" with "great and unmatched wisdom". If this isn't enough to change minds, nothing will be.           

Free Lunch? No such thing

"Good lunch - thanks. Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / “get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck! See you tomorrow- kurt"   - Kurt Volker's tweet.

Proof:

1) with no change in meaning, replace "assuming" with "if"
2) with no change in meaning, insert "then" after "in 2016,"
3) An "if / then" statement-pair conditions the second action (after the "then") on the first (after the "if).
4) One action being conditioned on another is exactly the alleged (and apparently elusive to Republicans) "quid (this) pro (for)  quo (that)".

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Fear and self-loathing

Republicans are in a bind. In 2015 when Trump first appeared on the political scene, most - as noted by Seth Meyers - probably though he was running as a joke. But as it became clear he was serious about running and his talent for tapping xenophobia, fear and hatred propelled him to the fore, they had to come to terms with a stark choice; reject him and risk losing power, or embrace him in a Faustian bargain to secure the Congress. And since the Democrats were screaming that Trump was the devil incarnate, their only response was to rally round him.

Ross and Staw's model of escalating commitment to a failing course of action is instructive here. In those early days, there was little indication that Trump could not step up to the role; but as data emerged over the first year that he was either incapable of rising to the demands of the office or was uninterested in doing so, they were still convinced that the situation was manageable and that his worst excesses could be mitigated and contained.  Now they are both psychologically and publicly committed. To abandon Trump after four years of supporting him makes them look foolish and must likely cause huge cognitive dissonance with the narratives they have had to develop to justify their support.  Now things are getting pretty serious (if Meuller's findings weren't already). Trumps abuse of power for political gain is simple enough for most voters to grasp (in a way that the Dems had hoped the Meuller report might have been but in the end wasn't).

Then there's the Turkey fiasco. Now the consequences of Trump's decisions by uninformed whim are having highly visible and salient consequences; people are dying and American troops are in harms way as a direct result. That is potentially so politically damaging that even Lindsey Graham, usually a shameless apologist for Trump's excesses, has criticized him.

And while Michael Cohen's conviction and Paul Manafort's were problematic, they were swept aside and ultimately under the rug by the torrent of disinformation from Fox, the barrage of lies from the White House and the seemingly never ending miss-steps and chaos Trump manages to create. But Giuliani's actions are arguably more serious. First they fit an emerging pattern of rule breaking and potentially criminal misconduct. Second it brings Trump's personal agenda squarely in opposition to America's national interests and the processes of government that the nation relies on in its foreign relations.

Combine this with the growing list of failed initiatives - North Korea, Iran, the Middle-East peace initiative, and trade with China - and the two accomplishments - the juicing of the economy and the markets with tax cuts and the appointment of two conservative justices to the Supreme Court - begin to look less convincing reasons to renew his term.  But Trump still whips up fervor among his base, sufficient to instill fear of a primary challenge in the House races, so their self-loathing and disdain for him are outweighed by fear and self-preservation instincts. But the longer they stay with the sinking ship the less they can claim any semblance of moral authority. Republicans, in embracing Trump, have become the party of weak, self-interested, immoral, lackeys. Until they rediscover some backbone we seem to be left with a somewhat unpalatable choice; more chaos, rule-breaking, dishonesty and corrupt behavior, or a pretty radical experiment in left wing ideas that the majority of independent voters may, with some justification, be very wary of.

Hunter-killer

The White House's effort to smear Joe Biden, despite its mind-blowing hypocrisy, has brought an issue front and center that the Democrats need to step up and address head on.  Notwithstanding Trump's flagrant abuse of his office for his and his family's personal gain, his focus on Hunter Biden highlights the appallingly corrupt but widely accepted nature of America politics. Did Hunter Biden act unethically? It's hard to say without answers to more specific questions. Did he advocate to his father for any of the organizations he was involved with while his father was in power? Did he pass any private information or insights gained through conversations with his father to those organizations that might have been helpful to them.

Biden Jr. is quite right when he notes this was poor judgment on his part, but arguably he is right for the wrong reasons.  He implied in an interview with Amy Robach, excerpts of which were screened this morning, that his mistake was not appreciating how it might interfere with his father's political campaign. But that's a paradigmatic concern, not an admission that in principle such behavior is intrinsically problematic. Of course, he (and the many other's in his position) will argue that the prevailing view in the circles in which he moved was that there was nothing wrong with cashing in on a famous family name, so long as there was no explicit connection between the actions of their powerful relatives and the interests of those he associated with professionally. But that's the same line of reasoning as the #MeToo perpetrators use to defend themselves: "those were different times and the norms were different then". They were, but that's no excuse.

The Democrats need a #MeToo moment when it comes to political influence and the appearance of corruption. As uncomfortable as it will be as skeletons in the closet are discovered, if they are to regain the moral high-ground they will have to confront the way business gets done in Washington and make some concrete and far-reaching proposals to clean up the town. They will need to make the case to the American electorate that they are not going to be part of the problem that alienates the political elites from the voters, that puts personal interests and campaign donor's interests ahead of those of the electorate.  Trump was right about the swamp and while he's clearly part of the problem, unless the Democrats take a clear stand against a system that works for rich  interest groups, voters will remain rightly cynical about the motives of our elected officials.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Fox abandons Shep

Shepard Smith, one of the few journalists left a Fox News (Chris Wallace is the other who comes to mind) has had enough; he announced his departure on Friday.  His decision may signal the end of Fox as anything resembling a news organization. The Tromp-o-sphere, the alternate reality universe we were first introduced to by Ms. Conway shortly after Trump's inauguration, has no use for facts; only opinions, usually xenophobic, intolerant, and bigoted. The only silver lining might be that if all the serious journalists leave, viewers might come to realize that Fox is the television analog of the tabloid press. But it's a very thin lining; there are lots of Sun readers who think they are getting the news. Then Fox will become the litmus test; Fox watchers are too stupid, indoctrinated or willfully ignorant to be taken seriously.   

Friday, October 11, 2019

Learning to drive

There isn't a Tesla autopilot in each Model 3. There is just one, cloned across all models on the road. And Tesla owners are all teaching it to drive.  There are more than 600k Model 3's with autopilot on the roads, all collecting data to improve the autopilot's intelligence. While autopilot isn't as smart as a person, it has had far more driving "experience" (about 16 billion mile) than any single human driver, which will eventually make it safer than the safest human driver.

The need for AI's to gather oodles of data to perform well creates an enormous network externality. As more products incorporate AI, the data economies of scale will turn competitive markets into create winner-take-all industries which without antitrust regulation will mean a series of uncompetitive monopolies. Google is already at that point in search. Only where function follows fashion, for example in social media will industries see the unseating of incumbents.  For free market enthusiasts that presents a problem. It's time to create an government entity to deal with market power and concentration.         
        

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

More evidence

Today there is more evidence, not only of Trump's unfitness for office, mentally and morally, but of conflicts of interest that make it hard to believe he is acting in the country's interest and not his own. Trump himself admitted in an interview a few years ago that he has a conflict of interest when it comes to Turkey; he has franchise naming rights on a very large building ("two towers!"!)  in Istanbul.

On Sunday he took a call from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey's authoritarian president and immediately afterwards announced that he would pull troops out of northern Syria. The sudden withdrawal, decided without any consultation with the his NSA, the NSC or the military top brass clears the way for Erdoğan to launch a military campaign not the region. And that he did three days later.

Not only does Trump's decision strengthen China's and Russia's standing in foreign affairs, it is morally indefensible. And because of Trump's business dealings in Turkey, its is entirely possible that Erdoğan used this a leverage to get what he wanted. "wouldn't it be a pity if the Turkish Parliament decided to expropriate the building?" he might have hinted.

So on top of digging into Trump's Ukrainian shenanigans, Congress needs to subpoena the records to that telephone call too; if betraying US allies and compromising US foreign policy for personal financial gain (or to avert personal financial losses) doesn't rise to the level of a a "high crime and misdemeanor", it's hard to see what does. 

We have reached a point where collectively we must decide whether we are a country that turns a blind eye to corruption in high places or one that stands for the rule of law.  More evidence that we are on the brink of degenerating into a banana republic.

It's official !

Not only do we have a kleptocratic narcissistic megalomaniac in our highest public office and a completely dysfunctional government, we can't even keep the lights on.  PG&E will be cutting power to almost a million customers in California for potentially up to five days because of high wind gusts. Thus, we are officially a banana republic (and puts "leaves on the tracks" in a slightly better light).

Monday, October 7, 2019

Isolationist

Trump's decision to abandon the Kurdish fighters who helped US forces defeat ISIS is, in strictly practical terms, foolish and short sighted. But it is sadly symptomatic of his instrumental approach to relationships. Once ISIS was defeated, he reasoned (presumably), the Kurds had served their purpose and could be discarded like his ex-wives.  But this sends a clear signal that will long be remembered, well after Trump is gone from the White House - that America is an unreliable partner.  That will have the effect of undermining local groups potential cooperation with the US as "force multipliers". America will then either have to deploy more forces to achieve the same ends or accept that its global influence will be reduced. Trump's shortsightedness either stems from a cynical calculation that when this chicken comes home to roost he will be gone from the presidency, or that he simply doesn't care. Either way, Colonel Jessep's immortal words seem completely appropriate: "You have no idea how to defend a nation. All you did was weaken a country today. That's all you did. You put people's lives in danger."

     

Biden his time?

Joe Biden needs to up his game if he is to make it to the final. He's fumbling the ball and the moment and needs to regroup and launch a more targeted attack on Trump to counter the torrent of conspiracy theories and misinformation Trump and his defenders are spewing. First he needs to point out that in pressuring for the Ukrainian chief prosecutor's removal, a man who allegedly had corruptly halted investigations into a number of companies including Burisma, the oil company on whose board Biden's son sat, he was hurting his family's interests, not helping them. That he has let a narrative that is the complete opposite take hold has become a serious political problem for him. Second, he might point out that when it comes to self dealing and nepotism, Trump might want to look closer to home. Biden's son may have earned a million dollars or so; but Trump's family (he included) will likely be profiting to the tune of billions. No one to my knowledge has put a value on the trade mark application approvals Ivanka suddenly received from China shortly after her father was elected. There are two astonishing aspects to this story; the first is that Trumps is so tone deaf that he can't see how much worse his intermingling of state and personal business is that Biden's was; and the second is that Biden hasn't, in the weeks since the Trump misinformation machine (ably led by the nincompoop of a lawyer Rudy Giuliani) began pushing this story, found a way of combating it effectively in the media. That's not to say that Biden should have asked his son not to take a position which in hindsight clearly looks like an attempt to gain access to the vice president; its was an error of judgement. But it was a judgement call, albeit a poor one, and not in the same leagues as the flagrant attempts at self-dealing that the current occupant of the White House displays on a nearly daily basis.         

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Gun Control

The AR-15 has become the poster child (literally) for the case for and the case against gun control. But banning assault weapons really misses the point. First, a very small proportion of shooting deaths involve assault weapons. But because they they are generally high profile "mass shootings" this particular gun gets more coverage than other weapons. Second, there are really only two uses for guns; for sport (which may or may not involve killing) and for killing, which may be homicide or self defense. Few if any hunters use assault rifles, so in the sporting category, we are talking about target practice. In that context its unclear that the government need get involved in the choice of weapon sportsmen chose. The area in which there is a legitimate concern for government action is when weapons are used for killing people. And they can be used in two ways, call them offensively (homicide) or defensively. Banning ARs will, as gun rights advocates rightly point out, make it more likely that those owning ARs will be criminals (once the ban is in place, owning one would in and of itself be a criminal act). America is a county swimming in guns and a home invasion or other crime in which threats of violence are used will be carried out with a gun. Some would argue that when confronted with an armed assailant, the best course is to comply and or wait for law enforcement. But there are those who want the right to chose otherwise; who believe that by the time law enforcement arrive the crime will have been committed and the the best, if not the only way to meet such a threat is with a response that is of commensurate force. This may or may not be a correct assessment but it is a choice nonetheless that is it not clear to me that the government should constrain.

Banning ARs will create an asymmetry that puts the person who chooses to confront an armed assailant at a disadvantage, to some degree forcing their hand.  And since the government essentially grants that citizens have the right to use deadly force to defend themselves (which the AR ban does, since it only seeks to ban one type of weapon, not to prevent an armed response to an armed (or unarmed) assailant), then in banning ARs, the government is not acting on moral grounds but practical ones; and that choice limits the right of those who chose to use deadly force in self defense to use what they consider the most effective means enacting their choice. If the government was acting on moral grounds it would expunge all stand-your-ground laws, make it illegal to use deadly force in any setting even self defense and ban all weapons, hand guns as well as ARs. If the magazine size is the issue then hand guns with magazines of 10 rounds or more which can be quickly reloaded ought to be treated the same way as California treats ARs -- only small capacity magazines are allowed and a special key be required in an effort to slow down the reloading process.

An argument for banning ARs might be that this would tilt the "balance of fire power" in favor of law enforcement; but ironically there are those on both sides of the debate who think that might not be such a good thing. The anti-federal government survivalists won't trust national law enforcement and the left tents to distrust local law enforcement. Of course the left is more likely to opt for a legislative solution than an armed one.

Its time to get beyond the symbols and begin talking about the real issues; access to weapons (and ammunition) in general, the relationship between law enforcement and those they are sworn to protect and serve, and the root causes of violent crime. While we are fixated on images of the AR-15 we will never make progress in solving some very real issues.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Why Impeachment Must Not Succeed

The evidence is mounting that Trump acted in a way that justifies his removal from office. He not only used the power of the office to try to extort another country to provide dirt on a political opponent, but then went to some length to cover up (and then miss-characterize) his actions. That, as I read it, is sufficient justification. At the moment Senate Republicans are almost to a person backing Trump, so his removal looks unlikely. But as more evidence emerges that could change, if they believe removing him from office might harm their or their chances in the 2020 election.

If it does and they change their minds and turf Trump out, they might actually put Mike Pence into the White House for at least another term if not two. Why? Because Trump supporters will see this as a successful attempt by the Democrats to thwart the will of the people (albeit a minority) and redouble their efforts to move the country to to the right.

So the best outcome might be to impeach and then loose the Senate vote but in the process make Trump undetectable in 2020; since he is unlikely step aside voluntarily for Pence (or anyone else),  and no one will be able to oust him, that would put a Democrat into the White House.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Framing Impeachment

The Dems' success in the next election will depend on how they frame the impeachment proceedings. If they frame it as an effort to remove him from office they will loose. They will  they will loose because the GOP will circle the wagons, the Senate will vote along party lines and Trump will feel and proclaim loudly that he is innocent, that he has been vindicated, and the Dems attempted coup has been foiled by his strategic genius.  That message will sell well in the red states.

If on the other hand the Dems frame it against the backdrop that the Senate will never remove him from office, they gain several advantages. First they put GOP senators on the stopt since if they do vote along party lines they will confirm the Dems' narrative that they are more concerned with holding on to power than with justice, national security, corruption, abuse of power and the good of the country.  It also allows the Dems to set expectations properly; that the trump will remain in office but that his misdeeds will be laid bear for all to see; with that more modest objective, the focus can shift from Trump's removal to his abuse of public office which will help swing votes either not vote to reelect him or event vote for his Democratic rival.
.   
      

Tough Break

If you voted for Trump, it must be really hard to come to terms with the fact that he is quite evidently off his rocker.  His deranged tweet storms, his inability to deal with reality that leads him to create his own fictional world in which his all actions are "perfect" and he is "a stable genius", all are signs of someone who, were he not in the White House would lead most people to view him with pity and otherwise ignore his self-indulgent outbursts. But for the foreseeable future he remains a burden we all have to deal with in one way or another.     

Family ties

The legitimacy of the newly initiated impeachment inquiry depends on your take on Hunter Biden.

If you think that because no criminal charges were brought, that while Biden Jr.'s actions were unseemly and arguably improper, nothing criminal took place. But of course that's a difficult position for Democrats who are up in arms about improper behavior which did not involve criminal culpability (see the Meuller Report).

On the other hand, if you believe that he and/or his father engaged in criminal wrong doing then Trump's attempt to shed light on it seems legitimate. Of course, threatening to withdraw financial life support from a country to do this is at the very least egregiously heavy handed, but sausage making is not a pretty sight. Republicans will argue that the only reason charges weren't filed was because no one was looking hard enough. That in turn was because Biden Sr. was VP and helped oust Ukraine's chief prosecutor.  (The fact that almost every European country was also calling for his ouster doesn't make it into their narrative). And on which side of that divide Republican senators fall will determine the fate the country's 45th president.

If there is one common theme to both these narratives and one the Dems need to get out ahead of it's the appearance of corruption, whether its Biden Sr.'s  children, or Trump's. Governing and public service is not an adjunct to the family business; it is a sacred trust; leveraging ones family's position of power an influence for financial gain, while not strictly (in the sense defined by the supreme court) corrupt, sure as heck looks pretty darn close. And its the kind of sleaze that helps fuel distrust of powerful office holders and contributed to the populist surge that helped put Trump (with assistance from Putin) into the White House.

As painful as it may be, Democrats need to distance themselves from Joe Biden if for no other reason than to signal that they will no longer  tolerate the kind of turning a blind eye that apparently went on when he was advised that his son's activities looks unseemly.