Friday, March 31, 2017

It's been too long since we've watched a video of a railgun test

Jalopnik's Kristen Lee catches us up.

Of course, I'm still holding out for something a bit more ambitious.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Jon Chait and game theory

This is Joseph

Jon Chait:
If Republicans are telling Democrats that any attempt to filibuster the Republican nominee will lead to the Republicans abolishing the filibuster, it stands to reason that the filibuster is not worth keeping around. What value is there in a weapon one’s adversary can disarm at any time?
This is absolutely correct.  Leaving the filibuster in place under these conditions is silly.  After all, the next supreme court nomination could also have the filibuster removed if the Democrats objected.  And, say what you will about the specifics of the Merrick Garland episode, but it really does seem to create a situation where the opposing party has the moral authority to object to the nominee.

So if it is left in place but never used then what is its purpose?  At this point it seems to be to maximize the chance that Democrats suffer the odium of removing the filibuster.  Now, it might be that the current nominee should be confirmed on the merits -- that is a very different question.   It is fine to not filibuster Neil Gorsuch because one finds him to be within the acceptable parameters of a supreme court nominee.  Of course you shouldn't filibuster for no reason.

But the idea that you would avoid filibustering just so that you can avoid filibustering in the future seems like a poor strategy.  That there is even a discussion of this I find odd.  If the method can be removed by a majority vote, and the opposition party has already signaled that they are willing to do so, then the only chance of saving it is to use it and have members of the opposition decide not to repeal it.

It is odd that this issue is even being discussed.

US Healthcare reform

This is Joseph.

I want to highlight a couple of issues about free market health care

But in health care, the cheapest, highest-performing systems all do the same thing — they let government set prices centrally. That’s true in the UK’s absurdly inexpensive, and fully socialized, health care system; but it’s also true in the Singaporean system, which conservatives often hold up as a model. 
Hell, it’s even true in the American system! Medicare and Medicaid pay much less for health services than private insurers. That’s one reason Obamacare relied so heavily on the Medicaid expansion — Democrats couldn’t afford to subsidize private insurance for everyone who needed it, and so they turned to the cheaper insurance Medicaid offered. Even now, the part of Obamacare that needs more money is the part based on conservative ideas — the regulated marketplaces where people buy private insurance.
 Now it is true that we cannot presume all government run systems will be inexpensive and high functioning.  But it is a tough problem for the free marketeers that they are, unless price isn't also an object.

I also want to highlight a practical problem:
The loophole that makes our system the enormous clusterbang that it is results from Republicans not having the courage to back up their tough talk on people who can't afford health care. As long as the law requires Emergency Rooms to take people irrespective of ability to pay, the system we use today is guaranteed to be an expensive mess. A system that requires people to buy insurance from a for-profit insurance industry or face a penalty is going to leave some people uncovered. Those people are going to get sick and get in car accidents just like everyone else. When they do, they end up getting services they have no intention of or ability to pay for. The costs get passed on to everyone else. This is why health care in the U.S. has been such a disaster – because we treat it like an industry rather than a social service.
The logical solution is to have a single-payer system in which people don't have to go to the ER when they have the flu because it's the only service provider they have access to that can't reject them for being uninsured and poor. The alternative, though, is for the Republicans to sack up and change the law that requires ERs to take uninsured patients. If they really are committed to the idea of health care as a product, the provision of which is governed by the invisible hand, then go all the way. Tell people, "If you don't have insurance, the ER will leave you outside on the sidewalk and lock the door. Hospitals don't have to treat you anymore, even if you're comatose, until they determine what you can afford."
 This is just one more of the series of information problems that accompany private health care transactions.  The classic one is trying to get prices or estimates for the cost of medical care.  Now I strong disagree with the author above that it would ever be ethical to cut people off of emergency care, but it is a logical outcome of fully free market care.

But you also providers being unsure of just how much care a patient can afford.  Just imagine having a heart attack and having forgot one's wallet.  No care for a rapidly fatal medical condition because you can't get anyone to get your wallet to the hospital in time.  Or imagine having equity in your house but it being too long of a process to free it up to pay for cancer treatment.  To some extent a very carefully regulated insurance market can help.  But surely everyone can see how easily rescission of medical insurance could be a problem -- even the debate could make the costs moot (as the patient has expired).

Furthermore, what does a fully private market think about "self-educated" doctors?  Is not the AMA a government regulation reducing free market activity?  But who would want the system that produces incredibly proficient providers and really sets a floor on quality to go away?

These sorts of deep structural problems (high cost) and information issues (price and so forth) make the provision of fully private medical care unlikely.  Given that, the real question is what results do we want to have.  If we want inexpensive and effective than one has to look much more closely at expanding Medicare and Medicaid, which are the current options with these features.

And a more expensive system is fine, but we should own up to that and accept that we are going to spending more on health care.  And given the high levels of cost, at some level a lot of that has to be sourced from public funds.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Without precedent, beyond analogy

Sometimes, the best examples come after the post has run. Last month  we made the following point about attempts to draw analogies between Trump and a couple of 20th Century Republicans.
There's already been lots of discussion about the Trump/Goldwater analogy and a fair amount, more recently, about the Trump/Nixon analogy. Both of these provide some interesting points to explore, but what strikes me is most important here is where the analogies fail. At the risk of oversimplifying, the extremism of Barry Goldwater and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration both qualified as comparable threats to the Republican Party. The GOP was able to weather these threats with no lasting damage in large part because it successfully distanced itself from both men.

Along these lines, check out the following from Carl Bernstein of Woodward and Bernstein fame:
Bernstein called back to President Nixon's Watergate scandal, and said the "heroes" of the scandal were the Republicans in Congress. "The heroes of Watergate were really Republicans, they were Republicans in the House and the Senate who wanted this investigated to the bottom: What did the president know and when did he know it," he said. "That's what we're not seeing here. We're not seeing it from the Republicans on the Hill who are consumed by supposedly looking for leaks."

We can go back and forth as to whether or not Bernstein is overstating the heroism here, but what matters for this discussion is perception, and clearly the GOP was able to create a perceived distance between its legislators and the Nixon White House. If Russia does end up playing a significant role in the end of the Trump administration, it is fairly safe to assume that future Bernsteins will not describe Devin Nunes as a hero of the process.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Maybe Paltrow and Tom Brady* could go into business together

In journalism, as in all things, there is no such thing as an original sin. Press-release pseudo-reporting and publicist ghostwriters have been around as long as newspapers have. That does not mean, however, that things are not getting worse. Not only does the previously mentioned flack-to-hack ratio continue to grow, but we have started down the dangerous road of legitimizing these behaviors.

Even if this "interview" was with a qualified expert offering products of real value, this would still cross numerous ethical lines. In this case, those lines are way past the horizon.

Kristen V. Brown writing for Gizmodo:

Gwyneth Paltrow, high priestess of sex-dust smoothies and $66 jade vagina eggs, is back with some more pseudoscientific health advice that you should definitely never follow.

This time, though, Paltrow is peddling a new line of completely unproven nutritional supplements from the cover of Women’s Health magazine. Yes, a magazine with the word ‘health’ in its title actually put a woman who once advocated for vaginal steaming on its cover.

“I think women in modern society don’t feel very well. The number one thing women say is ‘I’m exhausted and I don’t know why!’ I want to get to the bottom of why that is,” Paltrow said in a completely uncritical Q&A published by the magazine, which by the way was not labeled as advertising but was actually written by one of her employees.

Paltrow was gracing the cover to promote Goop Wellness, a new brand of nutritional supplements she is launching to “address the most common health complaints” she hears from women.

* In case you missed the title reference.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Self driving cars

This is Joseph

Over at Vox, Timothy B. Lee makes an argument about self-driving cars:
We don’t have enough data yet to say how today’s self-driving cars compare with today’s human drivers. What does seem likely, however, is that self-driving software will steadily get better over time, while human drivers won’t. And the sooner we reach the point where computers are safer than human drivers, the sooner we can start saving lives.
He talks about this partially in the context of Uber, which has a culture that is very tolerant of risk taking.  However, I think that the idealism in this viewpoint may be too strong.

If we were talking about computer driven trains, where one of the outcomes can be "stop the train and wait for a human" But I think that there are several issues here that should be considered when arguing for self-driving cares being necessarily safer.

1) I would expect there to be a period of transition where human and self-driving cars share the road.  The cars need to be able to handle the human drivers, where tricks like inter-vehicle communication are not going to work

2) Infrastructure is quite varied and tends to break.  How do self-driving cars handle a broken streetlight system or roads without markings, or badly parked cares?  Working 99% of the time is not enough if occasionally there is a disruption.  Right now most adults are very proficient at driving -- what if that skill stops being common among passengers?

3) Is silicon valley reliable enough?  Remember, running on software are vulnerable to issues like bad software updates.  It seems like special pleading to claim that a bad patch should be treated as an exception.  People aren't supposed to drive drunk but they do and the resulting mayhem is laid at the feet of cars (and rightly so).

4) How things work at scale is a whole different issue.  To make a lot of this stuff work we need to have strong regulation.  Look at the bitcoin problems -- fine for a secondary currency but imagine if the hard fork issue hit the US dollar?  What do you do if there are multiple protocols for self-driving cars that don't necessarily play nice with each other?

5) What happens when the car doesn't work?  Your iPhone can become a brick.  Do we really want to be on hold waiting to find out why the software system in the car isn't working?

None of this is to say that I don't like self-driving cars.  Insofar as they can make pubic transit possible for older and sick members of society then it will be a positive good.  It's not impossible to imagine ways that this technology can really help matters (automating parallel parking plays to all of the computer strengths and many drivers dislike it already).  But regulation seems to be the way to go, and it really would make me feel better if the people who spent decades making cars safe (traditional car companies) were more involved.

I would be surprised if Mark didn't have thoughts too.

Friday, March 24, 2017

R.I.P. Chuck Berry

This has always been my favorite,

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Does this solution work at scale? A question we should ask more

This is Joseph

Lawyers, guns, and Money points to this article by Emmie Martin.  It details the journey of a young woman out of student debt.  To make a long story short, it was based on three things: 1) large gifts from family, 2) a high paying job in an inexpensive area, and 3) getting lucky as a small landlord (things go much worse if tenants destroy the rental unit).

But the piece I want to consider is this one:
Back home in Joliet, Illinois, Horton took a job as an operations manager at the nonprofit her mother runs. The salary was comparable to what she made in DC, but the cost of living was drastically less.
Ignoring the family angle (her mother's nonprofit!), the idea here is well understood.  If you can keep the same salary in a less expensive city that is as good as a pay raise.  If that city happens to be the same one as childhood friends and family, that can compensate for the costs of a smaller community (less social contacts, less to do) by becoming engaged in existing social networks.  Now add a job that may well be fulfilling, and the small community can be a lot more appealing.

However, it is almost always the case that one will earn less money in a smaller city or community.  The tricks that let one actually do move to a small town with a full salary (e.g. professor jobs in college towns) almost always do miraculous things to improve personal finances.

But this isn't a solution that can work at scale.  Just like anyone can be a millionaire is not the same as everyone can be a millionaire.  So an interesting note on personal finance, if you can make it work, but it really shows how limited the options to escape a large debt really are, given how much family assistance was needed to make this plan work.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"Nobody told me there would be a test!"

The good people at Gizmodo pass on a clever (although, I suspect, doomed) idea for improving the quality of our online discourse:

From Bryan Menegus:

Over the years, conventional wisdom for how to deal with comment sections has changed a few times as publishers walked the line between promoting open conversation and stemming abuse. Sign-ins, badging, upvotes, paid and unpaid moderators—they’ve all been tried. Now, NRKbeta, the tech-focused arm of Norwegian public broadcaster NRK, has a new idea: a reading comprehension test.

It’s no great secret that comments sections tend to bring out the worst in people. NRKbeta’s solution asks readers to “reply to a quiz” if they’re intent on commenting. “We try to keep the questions easy and as neutral as possible,” Ståle Grut, a journalist with NRKbeta, told Gizmodo. The net result, hopefully, is higher value comments and less bickering.

But these short multiple choice questions do more than ensure commenters actually bothered to read the article they’re commenting on. Taking the time to answer things acts as a sort of mental chill out period to keep people from spewing their immediate gut reaction to headlines. “If we could make sure people at least had read the story before lashing out, the comments might become a bit more valuable for everybody,” Grut said. “The international attention shows that people really are keen on trying to solve problems with the comments section.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

It's always reassuring when Josh Marshall agrees with you

We did a post last month on game theory and the relationship between Trump and the GOP [emphasis added]:

However, while the relationship is simple in those terms, it is dauntingly complex in terms of the pros and cons of staying versus going. If the Republicans stand with Trump, he will probably sign any piece of legislation that comes across his desk (with this White House, "probably" is always a necessary qualifier). This comes at the cost of losing their ability to distance themselves from and increasingly unpopular and scandal-ridden administration.

Some of that distance might be clawed back by public criticism of the president and by high-profile hearings, but those steps bring even greater risks. Trump has no interest in the GOP's legislative agenda, no loyalty to the party, and no particular affection for its leaders. Worse still, as Josh Marshall has frequently noted, Trump has the bully's instinctive tendency to go after the vulnerable. There is a limit to the damage he can inflict on the Democrats, but he is in a position to literally destroy the Republican Party.

Last  week, Josh Marshall made a similar point in the excellent post, Ryan Alone:

 That makes the situation volatile and unpredictable. Trump's ideological commitment to this bill? Basically zero. Trump's commitment to being loved and not looking stupid? Incalculable. Trump seems at least temporarily imprinted with the access/freedom Ryan mantra. But there's every reason to think that is just skin deep. Trump may not care in any deep sense about millions of people losing their insurance coverage. But he did say his genius and deal making power would make things awesome for everyone. He wants everyone happy and loving him. This bill is not good for that agenda.

Monday, March 20, 2017

How did the press develop a top quartile worldview?

Admittedly, it is always dangerous going to Business Insider for a representative anecdote, but this is a conversation we've been having for a long time. You can find plenty of examples in this blog, in the Monkey Cage, and in the currently dormant food blog.

Pretty much everywhere you look, journalists tend to describe things from the implicit point of view of the well-off and well-connected. This has been particularly striking when the supposed purpose of the article is advising people on how to get by on a limited budget.

Over at Lawyers Guns and Money, DJ W points out a perfect example from a Business Insider article titled "How one 31-year-old paid off $220,000 in student loans in 3 years." [as excerpted by LGM]

    She had toyed with the idea of moving back in with her parents to save on rent, and when her father had a stroke in 2013, she knew it was time to make the transition.

    Back home in Joliet, Illinois, Horton took a job as an operations manager at the nonprofit her mother runs. 


    Horton’s mother gave the couple a condo that she had purchased at an auction for $13,000 as a wedding gift. It became crucial in wiping away the hefty student-loan tab.

    Horton and her husband lived in the condo for three months, but then they decided to move in with her grandparents down the street and started renting out the condo to bring in extra income.

    When Horton’s grandparents moved south, she returned to her parents’ house, refusing to live in one of her rental properties because they were bringing in extra income.

    To anyone who feels overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on student loans — or paying back any debt they’ve incurred — Horton has a simple message: “I just want them to feel empowered that they can pay if off. If I can do it, anybody can.“

Friday, March 17, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox: Paul Ryan, Supergenius edition

Paul Krugman makes an essential point about the press's favorite serious Republican idea man:
Start with Ezra Klein, who speculates that Ryan has advanced this ludicrous plan in the hope and expectation that it won’t pass. His reasoning is that Ryan is too skilled an operator to get caught off-guard as he seems to have:

    Paul Ryan isn’t an amateur. He is, arguably, the most skilled policy entrepreneur of his generation. He is known for winning support from political actors and policy validators who normally reject his brand of conservatism. The backing he’s built for past proposals comes from painstaking work talking to allies, working on plans with them, preparing them for what he’ll release, hearing out their concerns, constructing processes where they feel heard, and so on. He’s good at this kind of thing. But he didn’t put in the work here. And there are consequences to that.

But has Ryan ever put together major legislation with any real chance of passage? Yes, he made a name for himself with big budget proposals that received adoring press coverage. But these were never remotely operational — they were filled not just with magic asterisks — tax loophole closing to be determined later, cost savings to be achieved via means to be determined later — but with elements, like converting Medicare into a voucher system, that would have drawn immense flack if they got anywhere close to actually happening.

In other words, he has never offered real plans for overhauling social insurance, just things that sound like plans but are basically just advertisements for some imaginary plan that might eventually be produced. Actually pulling together a coalition to get stuff done? Has he ever managed that?

What I’d say is that Ryan is not, in fact, a policy entrepreneur. He’s just a self-promoter, someone who has successfully sold a credulous media on a character he plays: Paul Ryan, Serious, Honest Conservative Policy Wonk. This is really his first test at real policymaking, which is a very different process. There’s nothing strange about his inability to pull off the real thing, as opposed to the act.

Picking up the Producers thread again, Ryan's accounting has only slipped by up to this point because he was never involved with a hit. As long as his budgets and proposals had no real chance of passing, they had no real chance of facing serious scrutiny.

Yes, that is a relatively youthful William Hickey.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

iPhones versus health care

This is Joseph.

There was a recent comment to the Jason Chaffetz's comments that people might allocate resources to health care instead of iPhones.  This is such a huge admission of ignorance as to how expensive the United States health care system is that it is hard to know where to start.

For example, Duncan Black argues that smart phones are actually a pretty major part of basic needs in modern America:
A new phone high end phone costs 500-800 bucks. If I could buy health insurance (Real, not bullshit) for my family for that I'd happily give up my new phone. Of course, the two years ago high end model phone costs $200. The somewhat shittier and not quite latest and greatest can probably be had for 50 bucks. Your older brother can probably give you a handmedown for free. So, phones are not really that expensive (service is in the US because of our shitty noncompetitive market and lax regulation, go to Yurp and pay 20 bucks per month max). Also they're the only way lots of people have regular internet access, so they're pretty much necessary. Smartphones are not luxury items, they're required. 
I like this take because it weaves in a second piece to the puzzle -- monthly service costs are high in the United States.  The more marginally housing somebody is, the less they can afford to have things like land-line telephones (that come with expensive connection charges that presume people are not mobile).  If you needed one item to connect to the outside world, the thing that can act as a phone, gives you a stable phone number, allows you to send texts, and allows you to interface with the internet solves a lot of problems all by itself.  And when you consider used phones then the comparison gets even sillier.

But there is another piece to this puzzle.  Health care costs in the United States are opaque, literally to the point that I couldn't imagine a way to parody them.  Look at this video from Vox (youtube here).  At the end of the process of trying to find out how much it would cost to give birth in a hospital (any hospital), spending hours on the phone trying to get this price quote, the final bill was off by a factor of two.  So you can't realistically price shop in the United States for a foreseeable medical expense (let alone an emergency room visit).

It's not really a case of putting "skin in the game".  People often can only find out prices after the service has been provided -- especially since the system is filled with all sorts of little details that are difficult to estimate ahead of time (how many $50 ibuprofen will you need and is there is a reason you can't bring your own supply?).

There is an important conversation about providing health care in the United States.  But it centers around comparative costs, pricing transparency, the inflexibility of moving with current employer sponsored health care, and how to handle people with economic insufficiency.  It's not an accident that "single payer" style systems are brought up a lot -- they directly attack all of the major problems.  Maybe not the only solution, but trading in smart phones isn't looking like a good deal either.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

“Raised the IQ of both places”

 We are talking about journalistic standards rather than IQ scores, but other than that, the old joke certainly holds.

From Politico via LGM:
    The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza is joining CNN Politics as a reporter and editor at large, with a digital presence and an on-air role.

    Cillizza is leaving behind the blog known as The Fix he built at the Post over more than a decade. The Fix has since expanded and now includes a team of bloggers and editors. Cillizza will also be ending his role as a contributor at MSNBC when he joins CNN.

While Cillizza is probably a bit better than average for CNN, his departure represents an enormous improvement in the Washington Post. Under the leadership of Marty Baron, the Post has become the nation's best newspaper, particularly over the past year. The Fix has long been, not just the worst part of a great paper, but more or less ground zero for the kind of self-serving, pseudo-sophisticated journalism that is partially responsible for the rise of Trump.

We've previously recommended Jay Rosen's essential essay on the cult of the savvy. It is no coincidence that  Cillizza is the most prominent example:

This is what led to the cult of the savvy, my term for the ideology and political style that journalists like Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin spread through their work. The savvy severs any lingering solidarity between journalists as the providers of information, and voters as decision-makers in need of it. The savvy sets up — so it can speak to and cultivate — a third group between these two: close followers of the game. The most common term for them is “political junkies.” The site that Cillizza runs was created by that term. It’s called The Fix because that’s what political junkies need: their fix of inside-the-game news.

Junkies are not normal, but they accept their deformed status because it comes with compensations. They get to feel superior to ordinary voters, who are the objects of technique and of the savvy analyst’s smart read on what is likely to work in the next election. For while the junkies can hope to understand the game and how it operates, the voters are merely operated on. Not only does the savvy sever any solidarity between political journalists and the public they were once supposed to inform, it also draws a portion of the attentive public into emotional alliance with the ad makers, poll takers, claim fakers and buck rakers within the political class— the people who, as Max Weber put it in his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” live off politics.

But we’re not done. The savvy sets up a fifth group. (The first four: savvy journalists, political junkies, masters of the game, and an abstraction, The Voters.) These are the people who, as Weber put it, live for politics. They are involved as determined participants, not just occasional voters. Whereas the junkies can hope for admission to the secrets of the game (by taking cues from Chris Cillizza and Mark Halperin and the guys at Politico) the activists are hopelessly deluded, always placing their own ideology before the cold hard facts.

So this is what the savvy in the press do. Cultivate the political junkies. Dismiss and ridicule the activists, the “partisans.” Assess the tactics by which the masters of the game struggle to win. Turn the voters into an object, the behavior of which is subject to a kind of law that savvy journalists feel entitled to write. Here’s Cillizza, writing one:

    “Remember that most voters — people who don’t follow this stuff as closely as me, you or, likely, most people we know — make their decisions based on 30-second TV ads.”

I’ll remember, Chris. Your assignment: Inhale that sentence, click this link and behold how badly our political journalists have lost the plot.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Picking up immediately where we left off with the war on data

In our last installment, we talked about how delegitimizing trustworthy sources of data and analysis is a fundamental part of Straussianism. What we did not get around to mentioning was that, once the reliable sources have been discredited, less reliable but more malleable alternatives can be put in their place.

From Ed Kilgore:

When former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the abolition of CBO back in January, most observers probably chuckled at the old bomb-thrower insisting that an objective assessment of GOP plans would screw everything up. Now that’s rapidly becoming the conventional wisdom. Keep in mind that Republicans, after taking control of both congressional chambers in 2014, hired CBO’s current director, George W. Bush administration veteran Keith Hall. It’s safe to say that Hall hardly resembles Gingrich’s description of CBO as a “left-wing, corrupt, bureaucratic defender of big government and liberalism.”

So what’s the solution? Republicans seem to have found an alternative source of authoritative-sounding numbers that is more ideologically reliable: the Office of Management and Budget, which is directly under the control of the president.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Washington Press Corps and the "Watergate debt"

I don't want to exaggerate the magnitude of this, but I have come around to the notion that one of the factors, albeit perhaps a small one, that helps explain the bizarre behavior of mainstream journalists toward Republican scandal over the past quarter century is the sense that the press corps owes one to the GOP after Watergate.

The scandal was the one instance in American history where a president was forced to resign and investigative journalism was arguably the main driver. The press aggressively pursued the story and the coverage was, at the very least, sometimes colored by the personal dislike that many journalists felt toward Nixon.

As the years passed and the former president (deservedly or not) manage to rehabilitate some of his reputation, the idea seemed to take root in the press corps that they needed to balance the scales. The idea was nurtured by the Republicans and conservative media but I don't believe it was planted by them. Like its sister belief, the biased liberal media theory, it was an idea born of and trapped in the 70s.

The Iran Contra scandal was both symptom and aggravating factor.  There were hesitation marks all over the reporting, and while some of these can be attributed to the extraordinary popularity and charisma of Ronald Reagan, the timidity of the press is still notable. Nonetheless, despite the relatively gentle handling, it was still another case of journalists pursuing a Republican scandal.

By comparison, the election of Bill Clinton seemed to represented almost a perfect opportunity to balance things out. Not only was Clinton a Democrat, he also was an outsider (which threatened the livelihood of veteran reporters whose status rested on their DC Rolodexes) and a Southern boy from the wrong side of the tracks (which played on deep-seated regional and, more importantly, class prejudices).

I was in or around Arkansas through the 90s and I remember a constant sense of amazement. Perhaps it was just my naivety, but I was completely unprepared for how low supposedly respectable journalists were willing to go once they'd committed to a narrative, even if it meant crawling in bed with the remnants of the state's  segregationist movement (I still remember my revulsion seeing the Washington press corps elevate Jim Johnson to elder statesman).

I've argued before that the bad journalism that took root during Whitewater was a contributing factor and possibly necessary condition for the Bush presidency, the build-up to Iraq, and a general undermining of democracy that culminated with the election of Donald Trump. It would be ironicc if misplaced guilt over great journalism helped contribute to the decline of the profession.

For related oints, check out thee following from Charles Pierce and Frontline.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Take a deep breath, relax

For the sake of mental health, it would probably behoove all of us to take occasional breaks from the political scene. Here is some wonderful Americana up from the great Jerry Goldsmith.

Both films are excellent, but I especially want to praise the second, not because it is necessarily better, but because it is un-deservedly obscure. A true gem of a movie.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The War on Data -- Trump-Care edition

This mostly speaks for itself but here are a few quick points:

After the election, a lot of people started asking how this could happen. A big part of the answer is that, if you neglect and/or undermine fundamental institutions, bad things happen;

This thread is closely intertwined with our discussion of Straussianism and the noble lie. If you believe that the masses can't process the truth and often need to be misled, your first order of business is discrediting and dismantling respected institutions that provide the public with trustworthy data;

We've been on this beat a long time.

Alice Ollstein writing for TPM:
On Wednesday morning, two powerful House committees began marking up the bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act despite the fact that the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has not yet crunched the numbers on what the plan would cost or how many people would lose their health insurance if it passes.

The Republican authors of the bills refused to say this week if the number of uninsured Americans would grow or shrink under their proposals. Independent estimates of how many people would lose insurance range between two to four million and tens of millions of people. As for how much the plan would cost the federal government, Republican leaders offered no numbers—only vague assurances that it will be "fiscally responsible."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) told reporters Wednesday that he was not sure when the CBO would release its analysis of the bills, but said he hoped it would be next week, before the bill came to the House floor for a vote. But ahead of that vague release date, rank-and-file Republicans are casting doubt on the agency's judgement.

"The CBO is consistently inconsistent," Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) told TPM. "They can't predict the actual results of a 10-year window, because life changes so quickly. So I don't put that much weight on a CBO score."

Over on the House side, Rep. David Brat (R-VA) laughed when TPM asked about the rush to mark up the bill without knowing its cost or impact. "The CBO, they've scored everything wrong for decades," he said.

Emerging from a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA) agreed. "To tell you the truth, the CBO, I don't see where they get it right," he told TPM. "I don't know what variables or parameters they use to score things. I don't have a lot of confidence in the CBO process."

Asked whose report he would rely on if not that of the non-partisan office, Thompson replied, "Trust me, this bill will be subject to all kinds of alternative analysis."

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Jason Chaffetz and the sewage metaphor

This illustrates the point we made earlier, namely most of the leadership of the Republican Party and the conservative movement are now drinking out of the wrong pipe.

From Chaffetz to low-income Americans: Buy health care, not iPhones by Christopher Wilson
“Americans have choices, and they’ve got to make a choice,” said Chaffetz in a Tuesday interview with CNN, “so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone they just love and spending hundreds of dollars on that they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.”

“Well, what we’re trying to say — and maybe I didn’t say it as smoothly as I possibly could — but people need to make a conscious choice, and I believe in self-reliance. And they’re going to have to make those decisions.”

Chaffetz has been under fire for the last two months in his role as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, as constituents chanted, “Do your job!” at a February town hall meeting. Chaffetz said the majority of those in attendance were paid outsiders.

Regular viewers of FOXNews (and this goes triple for consumers of more extreme conservative media) have been told constantly that the world is rife with anti-Republican conspiracies propped up by liberal media, that conservative protests are grassroots expressions of the silent majority rather than Astroturf, and that the poor routinely dine on steak and lobster then rush out to buy the most expensive consumer electronics, all on the taxpayers' dime.

Having that retiree in Florida or Arizona believe these things has been of great benefit to the GOP over the past decade or two, but it is potentially quite dangerous when the leaders and spokespeople of the party believe it too.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ayn Rand on native American rights

This is Joseph.

Ayn Rand on the settling of North America:
The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too--that is, you can't claim one should respect the "rights" of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let's suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages--which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existnece (sic); for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched--to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did.
 This quote is so brutal that I wondered if it might have been fabricated.  But, it seems to be sourced correctly to a speech at West Point Military Academy.

If we presuppose that this quote is an accurate view of Ayn Rand's views, then it has some really big implications.  It rejects group rights, which really isn't a big surprise to anyone who has read Atlas Shrugged.  What is more concerning is the individual rights of the American Indians.  It's not at all clear that these people lived in savagery, and there is good evidence that Europeans mostly come into contact with the survivors of a plague, aka smallpox.  Some degree of social degradation could be expected in these circumstances.

What is the most challenging element here is the notion that the "civilized" European was justified in expropriating land (i.e., property) based on cultural superiority.  And this expropriation had a great deal of force involved.

It creates a notion that force is justified to claim property if one is more culturally advanced.  That would totally change the thrust of her philosophy, given that there is no entity that can decide who can arbitrate this distinction, meaning that the winners are likely to declare themselves socially superior.  This is a collapse into force-based conquest when different groups come into contact.

To me this is a critical point of weakness in the Randian viewpoint, if this is how it looks at inter-cultural conflict.  It's only moral justification is the ideal that property rights have a key element in the ability of complex societies to function.  But if the conflict between groups is to be arbitrated by force, then you really don't have much distinction from feudalism, which had strong property rights and an ideal of enforcing/expanding them by force.

I wonder to what extent this was a "one off" line of thinking?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wow, it's like almost all of the Trump Threads decided to converge at 3:49 on a Saturday morning -- UPDATED

Rachel Roberts writing for The Independent:

White House officials have reportedly said they have no idea where President Donald Trump got his information that his phones were wire-tapped by Barack Obama.

Mr Trump made his latest explosive claims on Twitter without offering supporting evidence, saying he was the target of a Watergate-style plot and his New York office was wiretapped during the election campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Two former senior US officials dismissed Mr Trump's accusations out of hand as “just nonsense” and “just wrong”, with one telling CNN categorically: “This did not happen”.

Mr Trump, who has frequently railed against “fake news”, apparently relied on conservative media sources rather than intelligence briefings to support his allegations – to the exasperation of members of his own team.

One White House official is reported to have “grimaced” when he woke up and saw the President’s fluffy of tweets, according to Politico.

“It could have come from anywhere”, the official reportedly said, adding it was unlikely to have been an official source.

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” the President tweeted, in a reference to Cold-war era allegations of espionage without evidence.

Breitbart, the right-wing media outlet previously run by Mr Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, published a story accusing the Obama administration of having monitored Trump Towers during the election campaign.

The Breitbart story, which claimed the tactics were designed to undermine Mr Trump’s bid for the White House in a similar way to the “Plumbers” plot against the Democrats by President Nixon, referenced commentary by radio host Mark Levin.

But neither Breitbart nor Mr Levin offered any independent reporting or cited any intelligence sources to support their allegations.

As far back as 2015, we've been making the point that "the Donald Trump candidacy is providing the kind of stress that highlights flaws in our journalistic system." Various practices and conventions that have always been bad are now undeniably bad. Some journalists continue to hold to these discredited notions and are left looking like fools, but many, perhaps more, have responded by taking a long hard look in the mirror and upping their game.

For example, we did a post last week on Jay Rosen's smart analysis of accusation-driven reporting:
1.     Person A makes an accusation against Person B.
2.     Person B denies the accusation.
3.     A news outlet reports that the accusation has been made and denied, but doesn’t offer any information to support or disprove the accusation.
4.    The accusation itself, not the accuracy of the claim, is treated as the newsworthy story.
This was the default mode during Whitewater and it remained disturbingly common. Recently, though, things have started to shift. As President Trump's early morning tweets have accumulated, more journalists and pundits have started pointing out the implausibility in the lede and sometimes even the headline.

We've also been writing about how the immersive bubble that the conservative movement created has resulted in a base with a sense of the plausible and appropriate can no longer be reconciled with that of the general public like some massive psych experiment. A major aspect of this experiment was a Straussian approach to misinformation.  The operating assumption was that party's cannon fodder would be fed whatever it took to keep them angry and afraid while the leaders would know what was really going on.

With the rise of the Tea Party and culminating with the election, the leaders believe what the base believes. The conspiracy theories, rumors and outright fabrications that were supposed to keep the retiree in Florida worked up are now having the same effect on the president.


From a characteristically sharp piece by Josh Marshall [emphasis added]:

My best guess is that is a typically Trumpian development in that it involves both abject lying and a big splat of ignorance, laziness and ridiculousness of simply having no idea of how the different branches connect with each other. He hasn't realized that demanding a congressional investigation is different when you're President rather than some old guy getting angry watching Fox News in the living room. The President is in essence demanding Congress investigate him. Yes, he thinks it's Obama. But he inherited Obama's house. Whatever Obama did, Trump owns it.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Bialystock's Paradox: Obamacare edition

I'm sure others have noted this, but reading Jonathan's Chait's account of the GOP's struggles to craft a health care plan that is satisfactory to the party and not wildly unpopular with the general electorate, I was struck by a familiar dynamic.

Eleven days before Donald Trump took office, I wrote a column with the slightly hedged but still hyperbolic headline “Obamacare Repeal Might Have Just Died Tonight.” While the “might” was doing a lot of work, my argument was that the GOP’s clearest and easiest path for repealing Obamacare had fallen short, which would force Republicans to attempt to forge a vastly more difficult path. That is what has happened since, and that is why the cause of repeal has been dying a slow and painful death. John Boehner — who repeatedly led his party to election victories on the promise that they would repeal Obamacare! — has now admitted repeal is “not going to happen” and “most of the framework of the Affordable Care Act” would remain in place.

As long as they lost the presidency, the Republican leadership was able to squeeze a lot of votes and dollars out of opposition to Obamacare, but the election changed the dynamic.

Republicans were able to paper over this yawning chasm between what their base demands and what their elites are offering for the last eight years only because they have been able to avoid a specific alternative. Republicans attacked Obamacare for its high deductibles, and Trump promised a replacement that would give everybody better coverage for less money. But their proposals would do the opposite. Multiple sources report that the House Republican replacement plan was supposed to come out this week, but was delayed after an initial analysis by the Congressional Budget Office yielded a horrific score. Their plan would cut the average subsidy level for a person buying insurance on the exchanges from $6,314 to $3,643, according to a preliminary calculation by the liberal Center for American Progress.

When you win, people expect you to start fulfilling obligations, and when you've been making promises you can't keep...

Thursday, March 2, 2017

There will be safe seats. There are no safe seats.

In 2017, we have a perfect example of when not to use static thinking and naïve extrapolation.

Not only are things changing rapidly, but, more importantly, there are a large number of entirely plausible scenarios that would radically reshape the political landscape and would undoubtedly interact in unpredictable ways. This is not "what if the ax falls?" speculation; if anything, have gotten to the point where the probability of at least one of these cataclysmic shifts happening is greater than the probability of none. And while we can't productively speculate on exactly how things will play out, we can say that the risks fall disproportionately on the Republicans.

Somewhat paradoxically, chaos and uncertainty can make certain strategic decisions easier. Under more normal (i.e. stable) circumstances it makes sense to expend little or no resources on unwinnable fights (or, conversely,  to spend considerable time and effort deciding what's winnable). The very concept of "unwinnable," however, is based on a whole string of assumptions, many of which we cannot make under the present conditions.

The optimal strategy under the circumstances for the Democrats is to field viable candidates for, if possible, every major 2018 race. This is based on the assumption not that every seat is winnable, but that no one can, at this point, say with a high level of confidence what the winnable seats are.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

More on Straussian communication matrices -- in retrospect, it's surprising it took us this long to get to the NYT

A few weeks ago we ran a post (followed up here) on the implications of Strauss on bullshit propagation.The prime example in both was the coverage of Paul Ryan.

Unless they are to stupid to breathe, reporters covering Paul Ryan have to know that he lies routinely, that he's not a world-class marathoner, that his tastes run less to domestic beer and more to $350 bottles of wine, that he was neither surprised nor disappointed when the camera crews show up to find him washing dishes at a soup kitchen. Journalists could still consider Ryan an honest man because they felt he was only lying to those below them on the hierarchy.

Even among the lied-to journalists, there were strata. There were those who didn't believe the humble everyman bit but swallow the rest. Then there were those who (having a rudimentary understanding of the numbers) knew that Ryan's budgets were profoundly dishonest, but they put those deceptions down as the compromises necessary to make the sausage. They too believed that he was only lying to those below them on the hierarchy, colleagues who lacked the sophistication to follow detailed budgetary discussions. Ryan was, after all, a serious policy wonk who cared deeply about issues like fiscal responsibility.

Of course, every bit of evidence we have indicates this is also a lie, that Ryan is a committed Randian who is willing to inflate the deficit like a birthday balloon if that's what's required to redistribute wealth from the takers to the makers.
Cognitive dissonance is a cruel mistress and hubris is a bitch. The New York Times has recently stepped up its game on the investigative side and has started turning in some truly extraordinary work. The analysis and editorial side, however, remains a disaster.  One of the flaws that has haunted the paper pretty since its inception is arrogance. No other American journalistic institution has more deeply internalized a belief in its own superiority.

Check out how Jennifer Steinhauer continues to cling to the myth of Rep. Ryan. [emphasis added]

Mr. Trump’s budget blueprint — which is expected to be central to his address to Congress on Tuesday night — sets up a striking clash with the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan, who has made a career out of pressing difficult truths on federal spending. For years, Mr. Ryan has maintained that to tame the budget deficit without tax increases and prevent draconian cuts to federal programs, Congress must be willing to change, and cut, the programs that spend the most money — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Arrogant and wrong is a dangerous combination even in the best of times, and these are not the best. The paper is trying to deal responsibly with Trump, but to do so without admitting that they had been wrong about so much of the political landscape or owning up to the part their pox-on-both-their-houses reporting played in the election.