GAME THEORIES

Posted in Quick Hits on November 15th, 2017 by Ed

I have some bad news. There are about a half-dozen ways the Roy Moore situation can play out, and most of them are wins for the GOP. As unbelievable as that is – that nominating a pedophile could end up benefiting the party – don't act like you're entirely shocked. This is 2017 after all.

Here are some outcomes.

1. Moore stays on the ballot and loses to Doug Jones. Democrats get a brief win out of this, since Jones would run and presumably lose in 2020.

2. Moore wins, the GOP and its slim majority expel him from the Senate, and Alabama's Republican governor appoints a replacement. This is the most likely outcome, I believe, and is a huge GOP win. This enables them to present themselves as heroes and do lots of phony moralizing about how they just cannot condone this man, and then he gets replaced by some totally generic Republican who doesn't cause anyone any trouble. Democrats would have to go along with the vote to expel him – how could they not?

3. Moore withdraws and is replaced by another Republican who wins. Same as #2 but without the added "We gallantly saved you from this man" talking points.

4. Moore withdraws and is replaced by someone who doesn't end up appearing on the ballot, leading Moore and Other Republican to split votes and hand Jones a victory. See #1.

5. Someone like Jeff Sessions is pushed as a write-in or Independent candidate at the last minute. This would be a power play by the GOP leadership in the Senate to sink Moore's chances of winning. A write-in most likely would not do well enough to win, but would certainly tip the balance in a close Jones-Moore contest.

6. Moore wins and then a couple of GOPers in the Senate balk on expelling him for whatever nonsensical reason they whip up on the spot. The party holds the seat but exposes itself to an endless barrage of "They welcomed a child molester into their club; worse, they lied about it" attacks.

7. America disbands after realizing that the mere fact that we're having a conversation about a pedophile who has a 50-50 shot to be elected to the Senate means that we're entering the decadent Late Roman Empire stage of our decline and at this point we're just killing time until the Goths sack DC.

I think plenty of Alabamians have time to talk themselves into believing that a bland Democrat is actually worse than a kid-diddler, but I also think the Senate GOP is sincere about expelling him. So, I'd bet on #2 if forced to choose. #7 sounds pretty good too, honestly.

BIXBY LETTER

Posted in Quick Hits on October 18th, 2017 by Ed

Once America had a president who wrote the following:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,–

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

Now look at us.

YO TAMBIEN

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

I'm mildly sad that the recent Nation piece about Columbus now has a correction.

In emphasizing that there is no obvious historical connection between Christopher Columbus and colonial America at the time Columbus surged to popularity, I pointed out that Columbus set foot in no part of the United States as it is today while other explorers of his era did. This is not technically true. On a subsequent voyage (not his 1492 "discovery" one), Columbus landed in Puerto Rico.

Now. Allow me to be defensive for a moment. I'm good at it. Point to follow.

Part of the issue here was where and how I did my research / fact-checking, focusing (obviously too much) on the famous 1492 voyage. And, as the editor kindly agreed, this factual error did not subvert the argument in the paper. Nobody in 1770s America thought of Puerto Rico (which would not become part of the US for more than a century) as Columbus's claim to American soil. Chances are they didn't even know Puerto Rico existed.

But. More importantly, I did something that the vast majority of Americans probably do a lot: I forgot about Puerto Rico. That's all there is to it. I looked at it at some point, going over lists of Columbus's voyages and landings. And I simply did not register "United States" when I saw "Puerto Rico."

I feel badly about this. Not only for making an error in a piece people actually saw, but for consistently forgetting about the people who live in parts of the United States that are not states. Perhaps I'm projecting, and in reality you think about Guam and the Virgin Islands and the CNMI all the time. I suspect not, though. Hell, there are people in elected and appointed positions in the federal government who forget they exist on a regular basis.

Intellectually I know Puerto Rico residents are Americans. If you asked me, I would say yes without hesitation. But the point is, I obviously haven't internalized it well enough in 38 years for my radar to pick it up when I'm scanning a list of place names for parts of the United States. Even with PR in the news constantly for the last few weeks, I/we still think about it as Not Quite.

Maybe it's time to do something about the second-class status of the island, which might help the rest of us not treat it like a second-class citizen. Part of me thinks I'm making too big a deal out of missing something on a fact check, but there's something subconscious at work here. I had to have seen it, so why didn't I see it?

ACAB, UK EDITION

Posted in Quick Hits on October 12th, 2017 by Ed

Hoo boy you want to watch a really good doc / investigative reporting about a tragedy in the UK I remember being horrified by as a ten year-old, check this out. Just remember, kids: all cops, everywhere, protect their own at all costs and will do whatever is necessary to cover their own asses.

ACAB, man. ACAB.

SMELL TEST

Posted in Quick Hits on October 10th, 2017 by Ed

We have a problem throughout society with allowing anecdotal evidence to overrule data. (Blank) can't be that common, nobody I know has one!

That said, there are plenty of statistics that we encounter that deserve a double take. The unemployment rate is a classic example. Does anyone really think only 4.2% of Americans are unemployed? Only one adult in 25? No, and a closer look at the methodology – particularly the trick of removing people from the workforce after they've been unemployed for six months – reveals that the true unemployment rate as most people would define the term is higher. How much higher? Hard to say. But if a rate of something like ten or fifteen percent were announced, I doubt many people would feel that was unrealistically high.

I admit to having this reaction when I saw a report that traffic fatalities increased despite "distracted driving" being down. Consider your own driving experience and tell me, honestly, does it seem plausible to you that texting while driving is actually becoming less common? I must live in some sort of anomalous bubble if this is true, because if I had a nickel for every person I see whipping down the interstate or navigating a busy city street with their eyes down and glued to a phone I'd be a millionaire.

I see the data. And there's no reason to be suspicious of the motives of the Department of Transportation since they're perfectly willing to admit that fatalities increased. But there's something going on with these numbers that explains the decline in distracted driving in some way that has nothing to do with actual distracted driving. Maybe cops handed out fewer citations for it. Maybe whatever sample they analyzed is atypical. Maybe the decrease was a small amount well within the margin of error for their study. But it's hard to believe that people suddenly decided to stop looking at their phones or in-dash screens while driving. More people with more smartphones getting better data connections suggest that if anything, it should be on the increase.

Nobody wants to go wading into methodology, but often it's difficult to make any sense of data like this without it. And the more people see data that give cause for skepticism, the more they'll justify being skeptical of all data.

CONSTRUCTED COLUMBUS

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

Very excited about a Columbus Day themed piece that I got into The Nation. Rather than rehash the fact that Columbus was a bastard – which I think is fairly well established at this point, or at least there is a substantial quantity of content out there that makes that point well – I wanted to look at how and why Columbus became a Thing in the first place. There certainly is no obvious reason we should celebrate him. He was Italian, he sailed on behalf of Spain, and he landed in the Dominican Republic and Bahamas. And Europeans were known even in his day to have seen or set foot in North America before he did.

The politics of the American revolution and some bad historiography are largely to blame, and I get to throw in a bunch of historical arcana along the way. Which is kind of my favorite thing to do.

So, enjoy. There were considerable efforts to present this as a "Columbus was a prick" piece for reasons of internet appeal, but I am happy with the extent to which the things that make it unique and interesting were preserved.

TOO SOON, MAN. TOO SOON.

Posted in Quick Hits on September 18th, 2017 by Ed

In 2008 the Oliver Stone-directed W was released starring Josh Brolin as the (at that moment still incumbent) ex-president. It pulled in a weak $29 million at the box office on a budget of $25 million, meaning that when other costs like marketing are factored in the movie likely lost money or broke just even with DVD and pay per view sales.

The movie was cast well (Brolin, Ellen Burstyn, Jeffery Wright, James Cromwell) and avoided the paranoiac plotlines that characterized early Oliver Stone. It isn't, I suppose, a bad film. But as I wrote at the time, it simply was too soon to release a movie about the GW Bush years. It was still ongoing when the film opened and the truly worst parts of it – the Iraq War, Katrina, etc – were recent enough memories that the movie was assured of alienating any potential audience. Bush fans would assume the movie was just going to mock him, and people who didn't like Bush were nowhere near ready to laugh about what at the time seemed like the American presidency at its rock bottom worst.

The W film has been almost completely forgotten, but it came back to me in a flash when I received the first of a thousand "Sean Spicer was just on the Emmys trying to make jokes" messages Sunday evening into Monday.

To say that it is "too soon" to laugh about any aspect of the Trump presidency is a wild understatement, and for the individuals involved there may never be a time where they can be viewed sympathetically. Every time I have felt the urge to feel slightly bad for the White House staff under this administration I have found it useful to remind myself that they are doing this of their own will. They are not career civil servants duty-bound to serve whoever happens to have power. These are opportunists, losers who no half-respectable campaign would hire and who latched onto Trump like barnacles because nobody else would elevate such total losers to such highly visible positions.

Sean Spicer could have walked away at any moment; in fact he could have avoided the situation altogether quite easily. But he didn't. He wanted the money, he wanted the attention, and he wanted a chance to leap from Single-A (where he belongs, doing PR for some tenth-rate 501c in northern Virginia) to the Major Leagues despite being devoid of any skills except for dog-like loyalty to a very bad person.

Americans have a great capacity for people with bad jobs, because most of us feel like we understand what it is like to show up every day to work for a bad boss and/or at a bad job. But Sean Spicer was not living in a cardboard box until Trump came along. He took a job in the White House in order to be a big shot and to get paid. Fine. That's the choice he made. Now live with it. If ever there is going to be a time at which seeing these Trump hangers-on do image rehabilitation, it certainly isn't now. It will be a very long time from now, and quite possibly never.

LIVING THE DREAM

Posted in Quick Hits on September 12th, 2017 by Ed

Today I got something published in which I call Steve Bannon a trash bag full of old taco meat right before I describe Alex Jones as an anthropomorphic sweat gland.

Boy I had fun writing this. I like it when it's fun. And the end result is probably better for it.

PRISONERS OF GEOGRAPHY

Posted in Quick Hits on September 6th, 2017 by Ed

I'm late to the party on this 2016 best seller, but Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography needs to go on your reading list immediately. The Aughts fad for treating Non-State Actors as the Next Big Thing caused a lot of people to forget that geopolitics is still a thing. Subject matter experts will find some of these takes a bit thin (it's pretty hard to do India-Pakistan justice in 50 pages) but nearly everyone short of expertise on a given region will learn a lot here. And the best part is that even if you fancy yourself an expert on one country or region, there are nine other chapters to tell you things you probably do not already know. 100/100 read immediately.

GETTING WARMER

Posted in Quick Hits on August 29th, 2017 by Ed

I have a new thing up at Rolling Stone; the editor is getting more comfortable with me and is beginning to encourage me to be more of an asshole. I think the final product is better that way.