ON THE NATURE OF TIDES

Posted in Rants on March 22nd, 2017 by Ed

CNN is reporting that the FBI has evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. At this point we have no idea what that evidence consists of. If it is firm evidence, he is not going to last the year.

I know, I know. You've heard "This is the end of Trump" before. Too many times. But consider the following points before you disregard this, remembering that the argument is contingent on the evidence being firm and more than circumstantial.

1. "The GOP will never turn on him in Congress." Look, I know it doesn't feel like it – it feels more like an eternity – but Trump has only been President for sixty-one days. Nobody could realistically expect they would impeach him at the first hint of a scandal. They've stood behind him thus far, but "thus far" hasn't been very much time in this case. So…

2. Two months of constant damage control might be OK with the Congressional Republicans. After six months? Eight? Remember, members of Congress do not like wasting their time on things that provide them with no benefit, and that midterm election will be here before you know it. What they feel willing to put up with today may not be what they're willing to tolerate in six months. Remember Watergate; Republicans stood firmly behind Nixon, right up to the point where they didn't. If the tide turns, it will turn with dramatic speed.

3. Trump has surrounded himself with a group of people (excepting family) who seem almost comically self-interested and ready to turn on each other in a heartbeat. There's no Ollie North ready to take a bullet for the old man. Some of his hangers-on look like they would squeal on their own mother under the slightest pressure.

4. It's Russia. Russia. Americans agree on few things, but almost everybody hates the Russians ("Alt-Right" dead-enders who recently discovered a deep love for Russia excepted). The Russians are The Bad Guys. Sure, your core group of 20% of the population will defend Trump to the bitter end. Your McCain-style Republicans will end up deciding between a GOP president they never wanted in the first place and America's long-time rival and enemy.

5. The GOP realizes that an impeached Trump would be replaced with another Republican from whom they can get anything Trump can give them…except for constant headaches and bad press.

6. The most important point is that, as I've repeated to the point of absurdity, the Russia story gets worse almost by the day. Like clockwork, a new piece of Even Worse News for Trump comes out like clockwork every two or three days. There is no indication this is going to stop.

61 days is not long. Even a principled party with a sense of shame would stand behind one of their own for two measly months. Six? Twelve? Eighteen, which would run smack into next year's midterm elections? That they will indulge him for that long and potentially imperil themselves to defend a guy they don't like and didn't want in the first place seems questionable.

I don't believe this is the end. But I believe that what has been happening since December – new, incriminating revelations about Trump-Russia connections surfacing every few days – will continue to happen. It is like Watergate or any other scandal; it doesn't strike like lightning. It builds like a wave, and sometimes it becomes big enough to do fatal damage when it finally hits the shore.

PATIENCE IS A FINITE RESOURCE

Posted in Rants on March 20th, 2017 by Ed

Many years ago I saw a judge at on academic panel making a great analogy in defense of laws that punish "sovereign citizen" and Tax Protester types for filing frivolous lawsuits based on their gibberish-level understanding of the law and a whole lot of nonsense they find on the internet.

Imagine that a man in attendance at an academic conference raises his hand to ask a question to a panel of astronomers. He steps to a microphone and asks if anyone on stage can prove that the moon is not made of cheese. Laughter ripples through the room. He smiles and waits politely for it to die down. "I am waiting for an answer," he says. Only light laughter this time, as everyone realizes that he might be serious. He waits. Someone on the panel will eventually say, with tenderness due a person who may not be quite All There mentally, that multiple space programs have flown to the moon and taken samples and conducted observational studies of the moon and ran tests that demonstrate, with complete confidence, that the moon is made of rock.

Still, the guy persists. No, that is all fake, nobody has ever been to the moon, and the moon is actually cheese. Now there is no laughter from the audience and the panelists are probably getting a little cranky. No, they say sharply, you are proposing a conspiracy theory. It is easily debunked and there are literally millions of pieces of information, freely available, that demonstrate the fact that the moon is a rock. "No, it is similar in color to cheese," he says. "Therefore it is cheese." What started out as polite amusement devolves into a general frustration at wasting time. Having politely played along for a bit, now they just want someone to drag this guy out of the room so they can get back to doing something more useful (or at least more interesting; useful might be a high bar for an academic panel to achieve).

Consider at this point the number of things our political system and government have had to devote time, money, and attention – all valuable and finite resources – to things Donald Trump insists are true that are not. Birtherism. Mass voter fraud. Having a record inaugural crowd. The size and historic nature of his victory in the election. And now this ridiculous two week long fiasco about being wiretapped. Despite the continued partisan nature of the reaction – at the Comey hearing on Monday the Republicans asked questions exclusively about leaks, ignoring the Trump-Russia ties more broadly – there is a sense of weariness from everyone involved at playing this game. In less than three months in office, even Republicans and people generally friendly to Republicans appear to have found this exercise useless and frustrating.

It was cute the first time, maybe. The birther thing didn't waste the time of members of Congress. Trump was just Some Guy back then. Now the need to respond to his fantasies and conspiracy theories eats into their time directly, time they would prefer to spend raising money, distributing the benefits of being in power, and passing some legislation. Every moment they have to devote to explaining with practiced patience to the President of the United States that, no, that thing he saw in the comment section on Brietbart is not actually true is a moment they have wasted.

Without a doubt there will be some new and equally baseless conspiracy theory from the White House before we know it, and the hearing that took place on Monday – not to mention the time the FBI was forced to waste "investigating" his delusions – will be repeated in the future. One certainty is that patience for playing a redundant and pointless game is not infinite, at least for an adult. A toddler will throw his sippy cup on the floor a thousand times just for the joy of watching you have to pick it up. At some point you simply stop giving it back.

THE ART OF THE DEAL

Posted in Rants on March 19th, 2017 by Ed

It is a common negotiating tactic in any context to begin with an offer that borders on outrageous. If I expect to pay around $250,000 for your house, my first offer will be $180,000, yours will be something equally silly like $400,000, and after we haggle the price will end up right where we expect it to be.

Most people understand that in a process of negotiation, not every proposal is intended to be taken seriously. The budget recently proposed by the President shares some things in common with budget proposals from previous presidents; it has not a chance in hell of getting through Congress, as it turns out that even (or perhaps especially) Republicans love the gravy train of benefits and projects they can bring their districts. In short, the budget proposal from the White House often is kind of delusional unless one understands it for what it is – an exercise in position-taking. It's symbolic of the president's priorities and is as much an exercise in Public Relations as a serious proposal.

In that sense it isn't unique to this President to look at the proposal and declare confidently that it is DOA as even hard right Republicans are doing. What is unique, though, is that nobody in the White House seems to understand that their ludicrous proposal is indeed a ludicrous proposal. This is becoming one of the hallmarks of this surreal administration: They propose something without understanding that in our system the first proposal is not what you are actually going to get.

The belief that they can make whatever they want happen is rooted in the baffling insistence that 45 is some sort of Master Deal-Maker. In reality, he doesn't seem to understand even the basics of how a negotiation between two parties works with the ability of one of them (Him, that is) to bark out orders unilaterally. For all we know, he might not even fully understand that he can't make a budget without Congress signing off on it.

To the extent that there is any thought, strategy, or logic behind such a stupid proposal, it should be seen as a budget proposal designed to cause a shutdown. If I need to make you an offer on your house for some reason but I don't have any real desire to buy it, I can throw out the dumbest offer imaginable and declare it 100% firm and final. Perhaps – doubtful, but perhaps – someone in the Inner Sanctum sees a shutdown as the true goal and knows that Congress will oblige by making huge changes to the basic outline proposed by the White House. Then the standard "my way or nothing" response from the President will guarantee a lengthy shutdown. Incidentally, the Republicans have engineered two notable shutdowns and were wounded politically in both cases. For some reason they think shutdowns will increase their popularity, but it turns out that people tend to get pretty mad when things they depend upon stop working.

If engineering a shutdown is indeed the goal, then this budget proposal is a smart move. But something tells me that a lot of inmates running the asylum at the moment do not fully understand that this is not going to happen. To be on the safe side, if you feel the need to visit and federally funded institutions in the near future you might want to do it before May 1.

RACE READS

Posted in Quick Hits on March 16th, 2017 by Ed

Apropos of nothing, if you're looking to add to your reading list and want some informative non-fiction, the two best academic-sociological books about race in the United States are Omi & Winant, Racial Formation in the United States and Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. The latter, in case the title gives you second thoughts, is not a "Well white people had it just as bad, because 200 years ago Americans were mean to the Irish but bootstraps!" screed. It is actually a really well historically grounded explanation of how, by virtue of being white, Irish people transitioned from being a minority targeted with derision to part of the American Majority.

Oh, hell. While we're at it, want to read something about a period in American history that's both relevant to current events and almost completely forgotten? Are you ready to start throwing punches if you see one more book about World War II or the Civil War? Alasdair Roberts' The First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837 is pretty great. What we Americans know about our own history is not only limited but also focuses overwhelmingly on a small number of discrete events. This is a good read about the nation muddling through a long economic downturn that threw the political system and social institutions into disarray. It also – teaser! – led to the creation of American cities' first municipal police forces.

MORE LIKE RACHEL MUCH-ADO, AMIRITE?

Posted in Quick Hits on March 14th, 2017 by Ed

There are two possibilities to explain the random release of a random piece of tax information about Donald Trump. Three if you count coincidence.

One is that Trump had these released as a red herring to redirect attention away from additional revelations about his Russian ties that may be coming out this week. Or, in a less Machiavellian sense it may just be an effort to garner attention that has been drifting away from him and toward the stillborn House GOP health care bill.

The other is that Donald Trump is a very vain, dumb, and predictable person, and that somebody – perhaps a fired U.S. Attorney who was leading the investigation into DeutscheBank's ties to Russian organized crime and money laundering – wanted to establish that Donald Trump earned a huge amount of income in 2005. Perhaps they knew that if a document showing Trump in a favorable light were leaked, he would rush to confirm its authenticity. Having released it himself to deny the hated media a chance to scoop him, there's no plausible way to refute it now.

The crystal ball is murky, but one thing is absolutely certain: There are but a few reasons one person pays another vastly more than the actual value to buy a piece of property. None of those reasons involve things that are legal. Aaron Schock is about to go to prison for it. Duke Cunningham did go to prison for it. And Donald Trump received $100 million from a Russian organized crime figure for a property not worth 1/3 of that, which the buyer never even occupied and eventually had demolished. This came at a time when Trump was deeply in debt to a German bank that is under investigation for helping Russian criminals launder money using third parties.

Most people saw a big non-story on Tuesday evening. Maybe it's actually a prosecutor building a case.

AN OBLIGATION

Posted in Quick Hits on March 13th, 2017 by Ed

"Barack Obama is spying on me through my microwave."

Depending on what you do for a living, you could be legally (or at least ethically) bound to take action upon hearing this statement from another person. Imagine yourself in any number of scenarios – Teacher and student. Doctor and patient. Therapist and client. Service provider and customer. Supervisor and employee. Coworker and coworker. Or simply a friend, relative, or casual observer who hears an adult make that statement. Your first inclination might be to verify that the speaker was serious and not speaking figuratively. Your next would be to figure out how to get this person to a competent mental health professional for a check-up.

If your friend started posting conspiracy theories at this level of paranoia you would be alarmed. And you would be right to be alarmed; thoughts of being the subject of surveillance or conspiracies are a sign of a person in the early stages of losing contact with reality. Yet it is apparently the New Normal to have thoughts like this expressed by the President of the United States and his inner circle. Conspiracy theories are a useful tool for someone like Trump, but we have to start raising the question of how much of this is believed versus how much is spat out for calculated effect. There is no way to ascertain the truth now that the tidal waves of ridicule have washed over Kellyanne Conway. Certainly she will hide behind the "I was just kidding" defense that serves the far right so well. But I am not entirely convinced that these delusions about being spied upon are all a case of artistic license. We have to consider the possibility that these people in control of the Executive Branch believe that their appliances are being used to spy on them.

If a student said this to me and was not obviously kidding, I would be obligated to do something about it. Fortunately there are some things I could do – involve health professionals, report it to a higher authority at the university, and so on. There's nothing I can do when I hear it on the news, though, from some of the nation's most powerful people. We are taking another step toward life in a sub-Saharan style kleptocracy, right down to the crackpot dictator and his inner circle of relatives and cronies. Trump isn't necessarily Mobutu-level crazy, but he isn't necessarily sane either.

BRANDING

Posted in Rants on March 12th, 2017 by Ed

For myriad reasons Shaun King is not the most reliable of commentators, but I'd encourage you to give this take on the fundamental problem with the Democratic Party moving forward a look. In particular this part at the conclusion is worth thinking about:

Recently, I’ve asked the crowds where I am speaking two key questions about the Democratic Party. The response that I get is always the same – mass laughter or audible frustration.

The first question is, “If I asked you, in just a few sentences, to sum up what specific policies the Democratic Party stands for, what would you say?”

People have no genuine idea. They know some things the party stands against, but it’s genuinely hard to be sure of what they stand for.

The other question is, “What exactly is the strategy of the Democratic Party to take back the government from conservatives across the country?”

That one always gets the most laughs. Nobody has any idea. Not once has somebody stood up and said, “Hey, I know the strategy.” Hell, I don’t know it. I don’t think one exists. Whatever the strategy was this past election, it didn’t work either. And again, I don’t just mean in the presidential election. Democrats lost all over the place in national, state, and local elections.

I think this is as good a way to sum up the current problems on the left as any – twenty years into the experiment in forever moving toward the middle to "peel off moderate Republicans," nobody can really tell you what the Democratic Party stands for anymore. Republican Lite and the post-Reagan death of actual liberalism have left the party without any meaningful identity other than "Not the Republicans" and the GOP has managed to brand a party that is barely left of center on most issues (and to the right of it on a few) as some sort of radical Marxist death cult. That was a problem before 2016 and it's a problem now.

Ask people what the GOP stands for and they will say small government and low taxes. Now, you and I know that they don't actually stand for small government in practice; they merely want the government to be very big, expensive, and intrusive in a way that suits their preferences. But the point is that people can tell you what the Republican Party is about. They can tell you what the brand name means.

Try to explain what the Democratic Party stands for using any amount of words, from a short slogan to a healthy paragraph, and you'll find that you can't. "Liberal on social issues" is about the clearest, most concise true statement I could come up with, and even that is a comparatively recent development. Ten years ago they were still talking about Civil Unions, the most prominent example of their inability to show leadership on these issues and instead to wait until they're absolutely, 100% positive that a majority of the public will support them before embracing any changes.

Economically and in terms of foreign policy, they've signed off on so much of the Republican agenda since 1990 that it's essentially impossible to give a meaningful explanation of their overall ideology. "Like the Republicans, but maybe not quite as much" is disturbingly close to the truth. A party can only throw its support behind so many wars before they can no longer sell themselves as anti-war and so many neoliberal economic ideas before it can no longer claim to be usefully distinct from the right. The centrist Democratic Party has had some electoral successes; that is undeniable. It has also had some staggering failures, though, and its biggest shortcoming may be that it has left Democrats poorly positioned to recover from those failures. Lacking any real identity, the path to success, as was the case in the early George W. Bush era, seems to be to wait until people tire sufficiently of the Republicans and then elect some Democrats because our system offers no other real options.

COAL COMFORT

Posted in Quick Hits on March 9th, 2017 by Ed

A good, semi-long read from a 30+ year veteran coal miner on why the jobs are disappearing, why they're probably not coming back (hint: it's not Obama, and it's not Stupid Environmentalists), and why people who work in that field have such a strong emotional attachment to the work.

It's a nice, sympathetic way of telling people in coal that they have to deal with the exact same reality that people in every other field are dealing with: in our economic system, we all have to find ways to adjust to the reality that whole industries will disappear when technology or global economic forces replace the need for us to do them. This neatly summarizes how I feel when people in blue collar industries go on and on about the hardship of being in a field where jobs are disappearing: "Really? Join the clu(r)b."

HEALTHCARE IS A LAND OF CONTRASTS

Posted in Rants on March 8th, 2017 by Ed

In teaching one gets used to the fact that no matter how many different ways it is strategized around or how many reminders are given, students are going to do their written work at the last minute. Divide the assignment into sections, give pep talks, urge them to get started before it is Too Late…none of it will matter in the end. Most students will be writing the paper the night before it is due. And very few of them are naturally smart and gifted enough to slap something together on a 5 AM Monster Energy and Ritalin bender that is actually good. They think they can, of course. But here's the thing: they can't.

I've used the analogy a number of times that Trump's unscripted statements sound exactly like an oral presentation given by a college student who forgot that he had to do an oral presentation in class today. The bravado, the confidence in his own bullshitting skills, the superficial knowledge (often consisting of facts that are not actually Facts), the generic and empty language, and the failure to hide disdain for the idea that you people dare judge someone as great as him are well recognized by anyone who has taught before.

Over time, though, two things are becoming clearer. One, this problem is not limited to Trump. The Republican Party that once touted itself as the "Party of Ideas" is officially at a point where it has no ideas whatsoever. Not bad ideas, which is a different issue, but no ideas. They are now designed solely for obstruction and have no ability to govern now that the dominant ethos has gone from "Let's govern this way instead of that way" to "lol governing sux." Should we be surprised that a group of people who claim that the free market can solve any problem in a complex society struggle to come up with concrete proposals for governing? No. But that doesn't make it any less shocking that after seven full years of trying to repeal the ACA, House Republicans had to slap together a half-assed proposal the night before the due date because they had nothing prepared. Not "We had a plan ready but some parts are works in progress" unprepared. Literally unprepared. They had nothing. And regardless of the amount of time – seven years might as well have been seven days or seventy years – that is what they would have had: nothing. They no longer bother with the pedantic and time consuming tasks of coming up with "ideas" or "solutions." This is a party designed to obstruct and nothing more. Hell, some of them were heartbroken Trump won, having become a machine well designed to prevent a Hillary Clinton from doing anything. Working with a president? That, they haven't a clue how to do.

The other thing I realize with time is that the same student who slaps a paper together at the last second is unlikely to produce a paper much better by starting the assignment earlier. The person who cares so little about what he or she writes that the assignment is left until hours before the deadline is not the kind who will devote greater attention to it just because more time is available. In other words, if you're gonna half-ass the paper at the last minute you will probably half-ass it whenever you do it. The problem isn't the time you have available; the underlying problem is that you half-ass things.

This applies to the Republican analogy as well. No matter how much time they do or don't spend trying to create policy, they're such a one trick pony now (Cut taxes + magic = Everything's Super) that they wouldn't have produced a markedly better ACA alternative had Paul Ryan spent seven straight years working on it. The means is the end for Republicans; they propose cutting taxes for the wealthy as a means to solve any and all problems because – ta da! – all they really care about doing is cutting taxes for the wealthy. Does it "work"? Who cares. As long as it gets done on a regular basis it doesn't have to work. Their job is already done.

Democrats lose elections because they propose things that voters don't like or that strike people as unnecessarily convoluted. Republicans avoid that problem by being for nothing and against almost everything. You have to hand it to them, it's a brilliant system. The flaws become apparent when the GOP, like a dog that finally catches a car, ends up with control of all of our political institutions.

PRESIDENT SNOWFLAKE

Posted in Rants on March 6th, 2017 by Ed

Every generation succumbs to the urge to criticize those that follow. No generation in history has taken more crap than The Millennials, some deserved and some illogical. Gen X probably had more words spilled on its behalf in the 1990s, but not all of it was negative. The sheer volume of analysis directed at The Boomers has as much to do with the fact that America has been talking about them for six decades at this point. Millennial bashing, though, appears to rank somewhere above college football and below drinking cheap beer in the hierarchy of American likes and dislikes these days.

As is customary, the most complaining comes from the oldest generation, as these people are separated from adolescents and young adults by the greatest amount of time and cultural dissimilarity. Yet the criticism today has taken on an increasingly ironic tone; for all its complaints about the specific faults of Millennials, it is more apparent by the day that the 70 year old they elected acts more like a stereotypical Millennial child-man than any 22 year old Brooklynite with a Journalism degree we could put in the same position.

Narcissistic? Yes. Addicted to social media? Check. Constant self-aggrandizement? Obviously. Vain? Almost pathologically. Short attention span? Inattention to substance and detail? Superficial knowledge paired with lots of buzzwords and image bolstering? Avoids or is incapable of doing hard work? Unable to handle any kind of criticism without going berserk? Believes garbage repeated on the internet? This only scratches the surface. Take any caricature in the media of Americans between high school age and thirty and you will find every last stereotype embodied in the grandfather that a generation of grandparents embraces as its hero. While wagging its finger at The Kids These Days, Americans at or near retirement age today elected a man with the exact personality and behavioral profile of a 17 year old girl who describes herself as an "Instagram Model." The only difference between that kid and Trump is that the kid probably isn't as racist.

The point is not what is or is not true about Millennials as a generation, but that it takes a rich sense of irony to appreciate how older Americans have embraced everything bad that they insist is true about Millennials in a geriatric package. Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that generations are not that different fundamentally, and given enough time to acclimate themselves to the new technology an aging Boomer can use social media to prove how vapid, self centered, and dumb they are just as successfully as any teenager.