IMPLAUSIBLE

Posted in Rants on February 10th, 2016 by Ed

When I cover interest groups in American politics there is a heavy emphasis on the ways in which the internet has made it easier to obfuscate. Groups not only can conceal their sources of funding and true ideological motivations – granted, it doesn't take a genius to figure out who's behind Working Families for Walmart – but more importantly a professional-looking online presence can completely obscure the size and influence of a group. The difference between a large, well funded, well organized group with a lot of members and a well funded, well organized group with few or no members is not always apparent at first glance. That's why it pays to do a little research. Especially if you're a journalist. Who exactly are these people so willing to provide you with quotes, data, and a story?

Last week the internet very briefly worked itself into a lather over some asshole who turned out to live in his parents' house who, despite being an absolute nobody with no evidence of having more than a handful of deeply disturbed followers, claimed that he and his "group" were going to pull off a worldwide event with 165 simultaneous big public rallies. These were claimed to be rallies to support his "legalize rape" ideology. Caitlin Dewey of the Chicago Tribune has a summary of what's blatantly, obviously wrong with this picture that is good enough to quote at length. I refuse to use his name and feed into his cheap publicity stunt:

***, known online as "***," is the self-styled prophet of a strain of radical misogynist pick-up artistry. He's also the proprietor of an obscure virtual empire that spans three Web sites, a forum and 17 self-published books. (According to analyses conducted for The Washington Post by the firms Tweetsmap and SimilarWeb, ***'s international "hordes" can be mapped to a few clusters of readers in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.)

And yet, when *** proclaimed the objectively impossible — that his cult would emerge from the shadows on Feb. 6 and mass at 165 prominent public locations from Phoenix to Phnom Penh — millions of people, and hundreds of journalists, took his word for it.

The ensuing global uproar has manufactured publicity on a scale that few fringe Internet movements have ever dreamed of. By the time he "canceled" the faux-revolution Wednesday afternoon, *** had become a household name in places as far-flung as Winnipeg and Sydney — never mind that even social justice activists hadn't taken him seriously.

"We only count real organizations as hate groups," said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic extremists online and off. ***'s rhetoric has all the markings of hate speech, she said; but at the end of the day, "he's a guy with a blog."

Unfortunately for Beirich and others like her, the line between "real" movements and mere Internet grumbling is becoming increasingly hard to see. For one thing, the Internet makes it virtually impossible to quantify groups like ***'s, which claim to command — but rarely produce — untold hordes of followers.

Only one point there is questionable: is it really that hard to see the line between a real group of real people and some moron with a blog? (Hi!) The idea of "pro rape" activists is obviously disturbing and prompts a strong emotional reaction – almost as if that was the goal, right? – but the complete lack of basic skepticism applied to such an implausible bordering on delusional plan was disturbing. Countless legitimate and quasi-legitimate media outlets ran with this. Countless counter-rallies were hastily organized. Countless people I know offered heated, passionate thoughts about the idea that this could happen. And it's really hard not to look like a dick – I do that plenty and have been looking to cut back – and be That Guy who says, Who the hell is this person? Why has nobody ever heard of him before? How did such a patently insane ideology build a global following without anyone noticing until now? How many men, even deeply, truly, terrible men, are realistically going to do this even if they support the "message"? Everybody completely overlooked the fact that none of this made any sense whatsoever. It was transparently a cheap ploy for attention. By indignantly reposting the stories everywhere online, we probably brought him enough notoriety to actually find a few followers. His fan base probably exploded. From like, 100 to 500.

Of course not every person who sees a story is going to start fact checking it in depth; could the media not have dug just a liiiiittle deeper here though? One of two things must be true. Either they are too lazy to verify any elements of a story, or they knew damn well that this was nonsense but decided to run with it anyway for the rage-clicks. Something tells me it's the latter. Who cares if a story is true or makes any sense anymore as long as it confirms what a given demographic of readers believes about the world.

Finally, and this is strictly my not universally shared opinion, but if these rallies were real events, counter-protests are counterproductive. Nothing on Earth is sadder than a public event with like 12 people at it, which is exactly what a "pro rape" rally would have were it actually held. The presence of hundreds of counter-protesters and hundreds more journalists simply help the group ("group") achieve its goal of making it look like a big event rather than a non-event. This is the standard operating procedure for KKK rallies now and has been for years. Why show up and legitimize it? Let them have their event. It will be 15 people who all look like cousins addressing a crowd that doesn't exist, and the resulting images and video will speak for themselves. They won't even need a caption describing it as "pathetic."

WE'RE THE FUTURE. YOUR FUTURE.

Posted in Rants on February 8th, 2016 by Ed

The competition is fierce but the actual worst regular columnist in American journalism has to be Steve Tarter of the Peoria Journal-Star. Is it against the rules or the spirit of competition to pick someone from such a podunk media outlet? Maybe. But this guy is goddamn magical. He once did a restaurant review of Cracker Barrel. His standard fare is "business" stuff written from the perspective of a person forever trapped in 1957. I don't even think he's that old, to be honest. It's an extreme manifestation of the fact that everything in the rural Midwest is about 30 years behind the rest of the country. If it was popular on the coasts or in the cities during the Bush presidency, it'll get to Peoria sometime in the next 5-10 years. You don't find a lot of hot takes on the new economy in a place where every corner has a Family Video doing a land-office business. In 2016.

This humdinger from last week really shows Tarter at his Tarteriest, a word salad entitled, "Looking for a new career path? Freelance jobs, online employment are on the rise." If you live in a real city, read this and tell me it isn't depressing. Let's start with the fact that freelancing was a "new" "trend" in our economy in, what, 2000? Add in the fact that "online employment" – which Tarter, parroting most of his readership, does not really appear to understand – similarly has been popular for many years and you have a column that serves as little more than an advertisement for two losers who turned grant money into completely unprofitable "small businesses" of startling unoriginality. Oh, a website about "online career opportunities"? Gee why didn't someone else think of that. Explore an opportunity to become a "consultant"…that sounds lucrative.

This is why I'm sad a lot.

We hear a great deal at regular intervals about how Empowering the new economy is, freeing us from the shackles of a regular paycheck, benefits, and eventual retirement to let us run free in the playground of dreams that is piecing together a living a dollar at a time. Is it possible to cobble together some earnings online? Sure, things like Mechanical Turk pay in actual money. But the idea that this sort of thing can provide a real adult with a real working class income is ludicrous and indicative of someone who has no idea what he's writing about. Oh, the Internet! These nice young ladies told me there's all kinds of money to be made on there! Sounds good, where's my typewriter!?!

Remember, this guy is talking about making a living on the internet in response to the Fortune 500 employers in the region slashing a few hundred or thousand well-paid jobs every couple of months. You know. Because you can replace manufacturing jobs with pensions by turning people without any salable skills or familiarity with the tech economy into internet entrepreneurs. Sounds plausible, right?

I used to think that the economic elite wouldn't be happy until everyone in the country was earning minimum wage with no benefits. In hindsight that was naive; they won't be happy until nobody has stable employment of any kind. We can all drive them around for pennies as Uber drivers and do their laundry on some app that will make us underbid other unemployed people for the privilege and serve them food as just-in-time temps at mostly automated service industry outlets. This is the future we're striving toward as a nation, and it sucks. It sucks for 99% of the population on the planet but it doesn't matter. Eventually they will succeed in breaking the population of the idea that any employment is more stable than day-to-day, and lawyers and doctors and engineers will be groveling for nickels just like the rest of us. Here's an app that people can use when they need medical help, just enter the amount you're willing to pay and wait until your bid is accepted! Shit, where's my notepad? Has someone thought of that one yet? I should get in on the ground floor for once.

They call it economic freedom, but the absence of security is not the same thing as freedom. Insecurity just happens to be cheaper, so it needed a rebranding and a good marketing campaign. It has been relentless since the 90s or, in Central Illinois, since this year.

LIKENESS

Posted in Rants on February 4th, 2016 by Ed

So much of political analysis in the mainstream sense is comparison and analogy. This candidate is like these previous candidates, and this candidate for whom no memorable matching candidate who anyone remembers can be found is like this character from a movie. If all else fails, it's like baseball. To say that it's not always the most useful method of analysis is an understatement.

When trying to think of a historical antecedent for the Trump campaign – not that I would not relish the opportunity to never have to think or talk about it again – my first thought was to go overseas where far-right nationalist parties are well-established in most multiparty systems. They are a catch basin for xenophobes, racists, reactionaries, and all manner of dolts broadly defined. In the modern world the closest thing to Trump is a guy like J-M Le Pen in France: blatantly discriminatory, unapologetic, and obsessed with Strength and juvenile dick-waving macho image projection. In the United States the only modern equivalent would be Sarah Palin. Even AM Talk Radio sycophants are more intellectually curious than Trump's people. They have arguments, albeit stupid ones often based on incorrect versions of reality and motivated thinking. A Trump crowd is just a bunch of primates pounding their chests and flinging shit at the slightly different chimps from across the river.

The other one I've thought about a lot is Bernie Sanders. People like Hillary Clinton – mainstream middle-of-road types who are weathervanes to indicate the direction of public opinion and campaign donations – are a dime per dozen. Sanders, due to his age and overall lack of looking the part, is not something we see every election cycle. I still think Elizabeth Warren must be kicking herself, as she declined to run believing that an opportunity would not present itself with Clinton around. She was incorrect. She'd have Sanders' base but with considerably more strength as a candidate on paper.

The most obvious comparison for Sanders would take us back to the Progressive Era in the U.S., someone on the order of Robert LaFollette. Eugene V. Debs doesn't work, as the mold of labor radicals from that era has been broken. We just don't make them like that anymore. Personally I think the best comparison for Sanders comes from overseas, and from the country whose domestic politics and population are most similar to the U.S. – Australia. Sanders strikes me as an American version of Gough Whitlam.

You'd be hard pressed to find a lot of Americans who can identify that name (pronounced "Goff") but Whitlam was a left-wing PM from the Nixon-Ford years who was unapologetic and full-speed about bringing Australia into the modern world. Prior to 1970, Australia was a backwater. It was the Mississippi of the former British Empire. The White Australia Policy was in effect until almost 1970 and the country was in danger of sliding into the class of global pariahs like Apartheid South Africa. Whitlam was elected in 1972 and was out on his ass (after the fabulously interesting 1975 Constitutional Crisis, which is a story for another day) in less than four years. He was widely reviled after leaving office but in time the country has come to understand how much he did to make it the place it is today. He ended all racially discriminatory policies and made the first steps toward ending the Men's Club nature of Australian politics. He granted aboriginal land tenure. He abolished capital punishment. He championed the Aussie version of the TVA, bringing services to remote areas. He legalized birth control and no-fault divorce. He introduced equal pay legislation for women. He granted independence to colonial vestiges like Papua New Guinea. He established free medical care and college tuition (the latter since rolled back). He ended unconditionally Australian involvement in Vietnam. He quadrupled arts funding. He recognized China under Mao before anyone else.

It wasn't all sunshine and roses. Even his admirers, myself included, recognize that there were some blind spots in his ability to understand economic policy and that he foolishly tried to placate voters by cutting taxes while spending grandly on social and economic programs. But his attitude as their elected leader was, "I will do what is right and you will appreciate it later. Not now, but later." At the advanced age of 75, I think Sanders would be a similar president. Honestly, what can someone at that age care about what the public thinks in the short term? If elected Sanders would be loathed with an intensity that would make Obama look like America's most beloved citizen by comparison. But everything about his ideology has that, "You will thank me later" feeling to it. He has a long view, which is why he seems so different. Everyone else in politics has adapted the business world philosophy of doing what will yield the most dazzling results from quarter to quarter, or at least attempting to do so.

Whitlam paid a heavy political price for his approach. A huge mountain of a man, his philosophy was to charge like a bull and make as much forward progress as possible before inevitably being dragged down. He failed to revive the Australian economy, but every Western economy was in total shambles during the era of the Oil Embargo and the hangover from Vietnam. Short term thinkers complain "Gas is too expensive!" and blame the people in power. People who can take a longer view appreciate changes that will pay dividends over several decades, not in next week's paycheck.

That's what I think is appealing about Sanders, and my affinity for Whitlam might lead me to project a little. Bernie certainly isn't the imposing, commanding figure that Whitlam was in his prime. However, he seems difficult to rattle and entirely focused on the future: 10, 20, 50 years from now. Everyone else sounds petty, small, narrowly focused, and shortsighted in comparison. That's the sign of someone who belongs in a leadership position. I've given up hope that anyone is going to get elected and turn this country around in time for me to reap any of the benefits. Leading a country isn't about that, though. Yes, everyone wants the trains to run tomorrow but that simply is the day-to-day business of making government function. It's not a goal, an agenda, or a plan. Age is often cited as a key argument against Sanders, but frankly I see some very real benefits to being 75 and entering the White House. There's something to be said for being too old to give a shit what Mitch McConnell wants or what Fox & Friends say anymore, after all.

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (IS ZERO)

Posted in Rants on January 31st, 2016 by Ed

To enter into discussion with a Gun Person is to start a clock and know confidently that before it hits the ten minute mark they will state that private gun ownership is an important check on the tyranny of government. When subjected to logic this statement is roughly equivalent to a toddler playing with a toy steering wheel in the backseat and believing that he is driving the car. What will it take to convince these people that The Government manifestly, demonstrably is not afraid of your guns.

The gaggle of dipshits playing toy soldiers in Oregon right now are learning that the hard way. What The Government appears to fear is the negative public relations that result from using force against white people, which is why this situation dragged on long past a reasonable display of patience. Make no mistake, had these people been Muslims or black or college hippie environmentalists or had there simply been less patience for their stupid antics, The Government could have resolved this in an hour. Kill the power, roll armored vehicles up to the door, and circle the building with every armed Federal agent west of the Mississippi. Give them 60 seconds to come out with their hands up, then roll in and start shooting. Better yet, set the building on fire. That's exactly how this would have played out were they not all redneck white guys. And in that scenario, being armed would not have accomplished a goddamn thing for anyone inside.

Watch this, if you can. I've nicknamed this patriot GI Sloppy Joe:

YouTube comments are rarely a fountain of common sense and reason, but to quote the great philosopher of our time "Boob72", "Just send in a drone and light these cunts up FFS." I'm certainly not one to advocate for the increased use of violence by law enforcement, but given the ridiculous amount commonly used I'd at least enjoy knowing that it's applied consistently. And what this blubbering idiot does not appear to understand is that if his paranoid rantings were based on reality and The Government did in fact give enough of a shit about him to kill him, they would do it. They have a lot more ability to use force than this moron and his handful of like-minded morons. Remember how law enforcement agencies around the nation are absolutely drowning in military surplus equipment? Yeah. When they roll up on Sloppy Joe in a vehicle designed to withstand hits from rocket-propelled grenades and fly overhead with a couple of snipers in a helicopter, what exactly is that gun going to do for him? He may believe that it is protecting him; in reality the only thing keeping him alive is the color of his skin and the number of people almost as stupid and insane as him holding elected office these days.

They are not afraid of you and they're not afraid of your gun. There are more of them than you. They are far better armed. They have body armor, air assets, armored vehicles, and they're (probably) much smarter than you because they've dealt with idiots like you before. If there's one thing American law enforcement at every level have proven over and over again – Aren't these very Patriots always bringing up Waco? – it's that if they decide you're not being taken alive, you're not being taken alive. They're not exactly hesitant to apply lethal force when they see someone holding a gun, which even by a cynic's definition would be one of the few instances when a cop could say "I feared for my life" and not be full of shit.

I'm sure we could fill a warehouse with everything the man in that video fails to understand. Of all his misconceptions, though, the fact that he thinks his scoped penis extension is keeping him safe is the most egregious. The law merely has gotten sick of indulging these children and even still he can't recognize how he's being handled with kid gloves.

HOW TO CONVINCE YOURSELF THAT DONALD TRUMP IS OUR NEXT PRESIDENT

Posted in Rants on January 26th, 2016 by Ed

Defeatism and liberalism go hand in hand in the US. Those voters who survived disasters like the candidacies of George McGovern and Michael Dukakis are no doubt scarred by the experience, and the younger generation of voters will never again trust the American public after watching it re-elect George W. Bush in 2004 (ignoring context and the feebleness of the Kerry candidacy in favor of an endless "How could you?" aimed at the electorate). This makes sense. It is also, however, terribly counterproductive. In 2008, for example, resources that could have been put to productive use in competitive races were instead wasted on the Obama campaign in states in which it had double-digit leads in the polls. "The polls must all be wrong," they thought. "Oh god, the McGovern dreams are happening again," they said, followed by soft weeping.

Certainly overconfidence is a bad attribute to bring to an election. A balance between that and paranoia exists, though, and we're seeing considerably more of the latter from Democrats who are absolutely convinced that we are a mere 11 months away from President Trump. I have listened to an entire Carlos Mencia comedy special and yet this is still the dumbest thing I have ever heard. Like Trump's supporters must do, Chicken Liberals (gosh I'm clever) must do a handful of things to convince themselves of this possibility. And by handful I mean like a dozen, every one of which must work out in reality in Trump's favor.

1. Pretend the Electoral College isn't a thing. Lacking a basic understanding of the way the president is actually elected will greatly enable this fantasy. Just pretend it's a popular vote or, I don't know, a contest to see who can get interviewed more on CNN.

2. Ignore every previous election. "Who needs data when I've got this theory!" said every person in history who was terrible at constructing logical arguments.

3. Pretend that Trump is better and more likeable than previous Republican losers. Media darling and widely respected war hero John McCain and plastic billionaire Mitt Romney, both charming in that unpleasant, avuncular way that people who like Republicans tend to find Republicans charming, fell dramatically short of getting elected. They didn't lose – they were crushed in the Electoral College (which, for a refresher, is how presidents are elected). Despite being generally not entirely horrific human beings, they failed, and yet the most repugnant person on the planet is going to be more appealing. Somehow. But certainly…

4. Pretend that Trump is going to bring new voters out. Millions upon millions of them. It is crucial to ignore the fact that his core supporters, uneducated white people, don't vote. Half of the people at his rallies probably aren't even registered, and since his campaign is rudderless and unprofessional nobody is in charge of making sure they're registered. Also, the ones who vote aren't already voting Republican. No. They must be disaffected Democrats.

5. Insist that Trump's effect on the Republican voter is solely additive. Yep, he's just gonna bring all these new people out in droves. And of course there's no chance that he could drive anyone who would otherwise vote Republican to stay away, right? He's only the most disgusting person in the country after all. There's zero chance that, like, the GOP would lose in Hispanics what it gains (theoretically, allegedly) in white morons. And it's impossible that something like, let's lowball it and say 1 out of 20 Mitt Romney voters finds Trump too repulsive to support. Five percent isn't much, right? Wait it's actually three million people.

6. Exaggerate the flaws of the Democratic candidates. Even though the Democratic field clearly has two strong candidates similar to the dynamic it had in 2008, make up some theory about how everyone who would support them will magically turn away at some point because, I don't know, let's say "the media."

7. Imagine that the GOP candidates are going to fall in line to support this asshole, whom they all loathe. I bet the process of getting their 57 candidates to rally around this human excrement will go smoothly!

8. Live in a world in which no one from the GOP's high rollers would bankroll an independent run by a moderate, or at least what Republicans call a moderate. The Koch Brothers seem like the type to take a Trump candidacy in stride. Lying down, even.

9. Forget that Donald Trump has never succeeded at anything, ever. This, the hardest thing to do in this country, will be the first thing he succeeds at. That seems plausible. Granted we're already pretending he has the attention span necessary to see this through 11 months of hard campaigning so I guess we can take it a step further.

10. Ignore the fact that Trump hasn't even won a single primary yet, and that his "team" does not appear to understand or to be executing even the most basic fundamentals of campaigning. Just get on TV a lot, say a bunch of stupid shit, and magically everyone comes out to vote for you. Yep, that's how our nomination process works.

I could go on but I'm already bored with the stupidity of this entire scenario. When you have no choice but to speak to someone who is claiming that Donald Trump can win the election, ask them to tell you which are the states that superficially pleasant, charmingly incompetent upper class twit Mitt Romney lost in the Electoral College but Trump is going to win. Keep asking the question until you get a list of states or an admission that they don't know what the Electoral College is. Look for a convenient exit. Point at a bird or something. They distract easily.

I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2016 by Ed

It's hard to overstate what a non-event last week's "capture" of U.S. Navy personnel who were detained in Iran for all of about 15 hours after straying into Iranian territorial waters. Information released by the Navy today underscores how routine the incident was, with the exception of the sailors being taken off the ships briefly for clumsy Iranian military propaganda purposes.

That timeline and the White House response are an example of how international relations are supposed to work in a world run by adults. Since provoking war with Iran while trying to get them to accede to the terms of an agreement to limit their nuclear program presumably is not on the agenda, we can be pretty confident that, conspiracy theories aside, the detour from international waters was either a pure accident or a simple case of young officers trying to shave some time and fuel off their route with a quick shortcut. As Ben Carson and the other GOP candidates were busy trying to turn this into Iranian Hostage Crisis 2016, the non-incident was over before they could even settle on alarmist rhetoric.

The psychology of elected officials and voices in the media that demand that the U.S. "look tough" and "stand up to" Iran, suggesting that somehow what happened is a source of enduring national shame, is both obvious and sad. Why were Iranians able to board the ships? Presumably because the Navy personnel judged correctly that their minor detour was not worth starting a bullet exchange over. Why didn't Obama stand up and start beating his chest and issuing ultimatums? Presumably because we made a mistake and that's OK. It happens. We made a very, very insignificant mistake and nobody got hurt and it doesn't amount to a hill of beans. The best way to play this isn't to escalate it, but to give Iran a good, condescending, "A propaganda video? Come on dude, that's so North Korea."

There are a lot of people in this country who appear, at least in their political views, unable to admit a mistake without being struck dead by shame and humiliation. I feel really sorry for them and the people who have to interact with them. What an exhausting, pointless waste of energy it must require to keep up that facade, to choose to saber-rattle and fight over every little thing lest one Shows Weakness in Front of the Russians. It's nothing short of amazing how much the words "I'm sorry" can simplify life, even if, as is often the case in international affairs, you aren't entirely sincere. There's nothing wrong with that. Especially when dealing with an incident so insignificant that no amount of histrionics can make anyone care about it let alone look at it as a great national crisis.

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN

Posted in Rants on January 18th, 2016 by Ed

19th Century newspaper baron Horace Greeley is best known for the quote borrowed for the title of this post. As the founder and editor of the New York Tribune (which later merged with the Herald before shutting down in 1966) he was a champion of the Whig, then Republican, antislavery movement. What not as many people remember is that he donated his body to be defeated by Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election. Many modern sources list him as a Democrat, but in truth the Democratic Party was so weak during Reconstruction that they endorsed Greeley rather than nominate their own candidate. The general election was therefore a competition between two factions within the GOP, one of which had nominal Democratic support.

That's not the interesting part, though. Greeley is the only major party presidential candidate to drop dead before Electoral votes were cast.

I won't rehash the entire Electoral College system here (here is a primer if you're lost) but its most useful contribution to modern American politics seems to be the introduction of a number of great hypotheticals. With the ages of a number of candidates in this election more than a handful of people have brought up scenarios in which a nominee dies. What happens? It depends a great deal on when they die.

For the sake of argument let's say Clinton and Warren (VP) win the Democratic nomination. Just to facilitate this example. Anything that happens before the Democratic convention would be an easy solution for either party, by the way. Running in the primaries is not strictly necessary to win the nomination if a candidate – Clinton in this example – were to win delegates in the primaries but die before the delegates cast their votes at the convention. Those delegates would become uncommitted, which is the same thing that happens to delegates won in a primary when a candidate drops out. And really, dying before the convention is nothing more than dropping out of the race. Really emphatically.

After the convention but before the election, if either nominee died they would be replaced according to the rules established by the parties. It wouldn't necessarily be the most formal process; in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton was removed from the Democratic ticket, the nominee (George McGovern) was basically told to pick someone else by the Democratic National Committee. There could be a second, smaller convention in which people in leadership positions met to choose someone in the old (pre-1968) convention style. If the VP nominee died, a new person would be chosen. If the presidential nominee died, either the VP nominee could be elevated to the position or a different person could be chosen. It would be kind of a mess.

After the election but before Electoral votes are cast – the Greeley predicament – is a bit more of a problem. Despite the fact that some states have "pledge laws" for Electors that are very likely unenforceable, Electors can vote for whomever they want. In 1872 nobody much cared because Greeley lost the election soundly, but the Electors split between voting for the deceased candidate and voting for an assortment of other politicians. Thanks to the 12th Amendment Electors cast two votes, one for president and one for VP. So, if the Clinton-Warren ticket won and then Clinton died, a plausible solution would be the Electors casting their votes for Warren as president and…it gets interesting. Could they collaborate and choose someone else to serve as VP? If you read Article II of the Constitution there would be nothing to stop them. They could also cast blank ballots for VP and then allow Congress to appoint someone to fill the position, as happened when Gerald Ford was chosen as VP upon the resignation of Spiro Agnew.

The really tricky part is the gap between the casting of Electoral votes and inauguration. It's a period of about 4 weeks, from late December to January 20. Having already received votes from the Electors, neither candidate could be replaced by the Democratic Party at this point. Alternative interpretations of the Constitution would abound, but the clear course of action would be the elevation of the VP-Elect to the position of President-Elect. Technically, I think the process would be the swearing-in of the VP-Elect and then, with the Presidency vacant upon the end of Obama's term, immediately elevated to the presidency. Then Congress would be required to fill the VP spot.

There's a contingency in place for just about any scenario. Nonetheless it should be obvious that losing a candidate at some point during the election – or especially after the election – would be a mess. The territory might not be entirely uncharted but it would be, with respect to Horace G., effectively unprecedented.

I AM THE WARRIOR

Posted in Rants on January 13th, 2016 by Ed

The Supreme Court is almost certainly about to gut public employee unions, including teachers' unions. Briefly, state laws currently can compel some people to pay union dues if they benefit from the collective bargaining done by the union on behalf of all employees. Otherwise any rational person would realize that the dominant strategy is that of all Free Riders: contribute nothing, hope the contributors succeed, and then enjoy the benefits. Since a teachers' union bargains on behalf of all teachers and not just union members, the seemingly sound logic goes, all should contribute.

The complicating factor is that unions, like corporations, non-profit groups, and many other entities, donate money in elections and are active in other aspects of the political process. It was only a matter of time until someone interested in becoming a right-wing martyr filed the right lawsuit. He/she can go on tour with Kim Davis. Think of the ticket sales.

Literally the first thing I cover when teaching Intro to American Government is the concept of a collective action problem. It's the backbone of the course, and it comes up repeatedly. The textbook explanation is that rational individuals have the incentive to free ride. What I don't cover but believe to be an important part of the resistance to collective action is that people (read: conservatives) wildly overestimate what they are capable of achieving on their own. Why should we have single-payer healthcare, I will be able to pay for my own healthcare. Why donate to an environmental group, if the water is gross I'll just move. And who needs a teachers' union, I'm awesome and I'll either negotiate a sweet deal all by myself or I'll just get a higher paying job at another school. Believe me, there is not a single social, economic, or political problem you can present to 19 year olds as a hypothetical that they are not 100% confident that they will solve on their own initiative, most likely incorporating the use of Bootstraps. It's understandable at that age. Unfortunately a lot of people never seem to grow out of it.

In an entirely different course we read Anthem, selected because it is the shortest and thus least painful Ayn Rand piece and because it is one of the finest works of comedy ever penned. How can you do anything but adore a story that ends with a man drafting an ode to individualism in a house someone else built and that he broke into. Anyway, the real money scene is where the protagonist heads out into the forest and, in the space of a few hours before dinnertime, he makes a bow and arrows and shoots plenty of birds out of the sky to feed himself. He also gets a few by throwing rocks at them. This is a minor detail in the story but, in my view, is a great litmus test of a fundamental personality characteristic. The kind of person who thinks, "Yeah that seems plausible" believes that some people, namely themselves, are simply Great and therefore can solve any and every problem on their own through the force of their own Greatness. The other kind of person looks at a man running off into the woods with no supplies, food, clothing, or tools of any kind and thinks, "Well he's gonna be dead in about a week."

When someone shrinks from collective action it might be based on a rational belief that the group will succeed regardless and the benefits will be available for everyone to enjoy. It also might be the result of decades of bombardment with Rugged Individualist homilies and the belief that there simply is no problem that one cannot solve with their own (no doubt inestimable) talents. The latter goes one of two ways. For some people, a life of social privilege and unearned wealth reinforce the belief that one is Great and needs no one else. For the rest life has some real big surprises in store.

CAN'T STAND IT. I KNOW YOU PLANNED IT.

Posted in Rants on January 11th, 2016 by Ed

I had the good fortune to attend a conference in San Juan for half of last week; "fortunate" in the sense that it was 86 degrees when I got on the plane Sunday morning and 7 – 7 goddamn degrees – when I got off in Chicago. Beyond that I got to visit America's politically ambiguous colonial non-state possession for the first time. Although I didn't see the entire island or get to stay for very long, the short visit did motivate me to do something Americans tend never to do: pay a little bit of attention to Puerto Rico.

About the extent of my knowledge of Puerto Rican politics and internal affairs, as is the case with most Americans, is that they are all screwed up. The island's government is deeply in debt, its population is aging and unproductive because the young people leave to the mainland US for higher wages, and Congress has no intention of altering the relationship between PR and the rest of the country because of course every aspect of that relationship has been defined in a way that benefits us. That's how colonialism works.

Puerto Ricans have some interest in statehood, which is a non-starter with a Republican Congress. Their objection, as with D.C. statehood, is the inevitable addition of two more Democrats to the Senate should PR become a state. Ironically, in the 1990s it was the Republicans who were all for PR statehood. They pretended that it was some sort of principled stand but most people saw it as a transparent effort to curry favor with Hispanics. Believe it or not, it was even more cynical than that; they wanted to make PR a state so that the government would no longer be obligated to pay the island for the use of various military facilities on it like the test bombing range on Vieques. It was a classy move, although obviously it went nowhere.

That was about all I knew. Well, there was one more thing: over the past year I kept reading that there was a lot of controversy on the island over the issue of cabotage. This information created two problems for me. First, every time I see it I replace "Sabotage" with cabotage and get the song stuck in my head. Second, I have no goddamn idea what cabotage is. It seemed worth a half hour on the way to the airport to read a little.

Cabotage is, "the transport of goods or passengers between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country." It is forbidden in the United States by the Jones Act, which is nearing its 100th birthday. For example, that a Panamanian ship cannot stop in New Orleans and then stop in San Juan. Only an American owned, registered, and crewed ship can transport things from cities like Houston or New Orleans to the island. This is important because PR has to import nearly everything (for reasons that are controversial, but for which the island itself deserves at least some blame). In short, the highly consolidated US shipping industry has Puerto Rico over a barrel. As you might expect they take every opportunity to ream them.

The real tragedy is that mismanagement – both self-mismanagement and ineffective governance by colonial powers like Spain and the U.S. – has created a dependence on imports that isn't strictly necessary. The island is well suited to agriculture but grows almost none of its own food. It has some of the best conditions for a renewable commercial timber industry but instead imports wood from the U.S. and Canada. Compared to much of the Caribbean, it is underdeveloped for tourism and undercut on price by similar destinations in the region. It's a sad state of affairs and one that is not rare around the world: a place with a lot of potential that it will never realize for political reasons.

It will be an ancillary issue at best but during this election it wouldn't be surprising to see the candidates pressed on bailing out the Puerto Rican government as it comes closer to defaulting on its $70 billion in debt. I'm no economist but at a debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 68%, promising alternatives to a Congressional bailout are neither numerous nor apparent.

THE WELL-LUBRICATED SLOPE

Posted in Rants on January 7th, 2016 by Ed

Nothing makes clearer the complete intellectual bankruptcy of the NRA and its acolytes quite like the reaction earlier this week to Obama's beyond-milquetoast executive order about background checks at gun shows and for internet gun sales. As far as "gun control" goes, that is just about the least you could possibly do and still qualify. That makes it about one tenth of one percent more difficult to buy a gun. I am going to be accused of hyperbole here so click the link if you don't believe me: everybody supports this. 85% of Republicans support it. In public opinion terms, when one in ten people will support or oppose literally anything you can put on a survey because of measurement error, not reading the question, or just trying to be cute/funny, 89% of Americans supporting something is the functional if not statistical equivalent of "everybody." The reason it enjoys universal appeal is that it is basic common sense, it is merely an extension of an existing law, and it is such a diminutive baby step that even the most lunatic gun nuts would have a hard time calling it "gun control" with a straight face. If anything, the fact that this is the extent of the regulation our political process can successfully enact against the firearm industry shows how completely pro-2nd Amendment forces have won this debate. This guy had to fight and eventually circumvent Congress to do something that literally no person, gun owners included, in their right mind opposes or considers onerous. It's like he passed an executive order saying people have to be 21 to buy alcohol in a bar as well as in stores. This is the biggest non-event in the history of government regulation.

So leave it to Ted Cruz, an hour after the announcement, to claim that Obama is in tactical gear and arriving at your home shortly to take your guns. The same Obama who has been in the process of coming to take your guns – It's gonna happen any second now, be prepared! Better stock up! – for seven full years now. Because he issued an order that an existing law governing in-store gun sales should also apply to internet sales.

The reality, as we've said so many times that it makes me feel weary even to think about typing it out again, is that the NRA is the marketing arm of the gun industry, not a legitimate "interest group." Their job is to drum up fear so that people will run out and buy more guns. They represent gun manufacturers, not gun owners. That they represent the latter is an illusion. The only rhetorical tool they have in light of the overwhelming meagerness of the amount of regulating the government does to firearms – in reality, not in the fever dreams of the Bundy Militia – is the constant recourse to the slippery slope. Oh sure, this might not be much but it's the first step in a chain of events that ends with Bill Clinton and the ACLU and Liberal Professors and Feminists and Welfare Queens kicking down your door and pulling your guns out of your hands. These weak, nearly futile efforts at regulating gun sales are always, in right wing rhetoric, the tip of an iceberg nobody can see and that we never seem to hit.

Actually, this isn't their only rhetorical tactic. There's also lying. They use that one a lot.